Small Wars

This Week at War: Learning to Love Crazy Karzai

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images
Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images

Great news — Karzai is acting crazy

In last week’s column, I discussed an anti-American outburst Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently delivered to lunch guests at his palace. After a phone call to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to smooth things over, Karzai almost immediately opened fire again, renewing his complaints about Western interference in Afghanistan’s affairs. This tirade concluded with a threat to join the Taliban if foreign interference did not stop. The colorful Peter Galbraith, the former deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan (who was fired from that position for his open quarrels with Karzai and his boss) questioned Karzai’s "mental stability" and hinted Karzai might be under the influence of drugs. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley dismissed Galbraith’s claim and again attempted to get relations with Karzai back on track. But we should not be surprised by another eruption from the Afghan president.

U.S. officials should be pleased that Karzai is rebranding himself as an anti-Western nationalist. Successful counterinsurgency requires a local partner who is legitimate and credible with the indigenous population. If Karzai has concluded that this attempt at rebranding is necessary to increase his legitimacy, especially among Pashtuns, the U.S. government should not object.

Obviously a rebranded Karzai is insufficient for success. The numerous shortcomings of Karzai and the central government in Kabul will not be repaired by this ploy. More troubling is the collateral damage Karzai’s attempt at rebranding could inflict. The president’s new hostility could damage the morale of U.S. soldiers, who will wonder why they should risk their lives for an erratic America-basher. Karzai’s revised marketing strategy could also spoil U.S. political support for the military campaign and boost the Taliban’s recruiting.

But there is more to Karzai’s rebranding than boosting the current counterinsurgency campaign. He also has to start making plans for how to get by in a post-American Afghanistan. Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both pledged an enduring U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and stated that the U.S. withdrawal, scheduled to begin in July 2011, will be gradual and "conditions-based," Karzai needs to take such promises lightly. More imminent is the Obama team’s December 2010 re-evaluation of its strategy, after which Obama could scrap the current plan, should he conclude the assumptions and expectations from last year’s exhaustive policy review are not being met.

Rather than merely waiting to be the victim of Obama’s timetable, and already knowing that the United States is on its way out, Karzai may have decided to seize the initiative for himself and establish his own timetable for a transition to whatever will come after the United States and NATO withdraw. Establishing himself as independent from the United States will be essential if he is to attract a new great-power patron.

If Karzai’s anti-Western shift accelerates this process, U.S. officials again should not despair. Obama’s decision last December to multiply the commitment of American prestige left no path for a graceful escape. Karzai’s calculated outbursts could open up that means of escape, which Obama should be grateful to have.

The yin and yang of the Nuclear Posture Review

The authors of the U.S. government’s latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) are attempting to deliver two messages. The first message attempts to show that the U.S. government is making some significant changes to its nuclear weapons doctrine and force structure, changes that bring the world closer to being free of nuclear weapons. The second message asserts that the United States is doing no such thing at all and in fact will remain a fully modernized and supreme nuclear power. The first message is intended for the distrusting leaders of nonaligned developing countries attending next month’s conference to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The second message is aimed at nervous U.S. allies that rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for their defense and skeptical American senators who must ratify the various nuclear treaties that Obama will soon send their way. Unfortunately for Obama, these two messages are likely to get crossed in transit.

The administration is correct to conclude that nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism are (for now at least) the top security threats. Effective action against these threats requires enthusiastic international cooperation. The president’s team has concluded that  to get that cooperation, it needs to demonstrate that the United States is serious about nuclear arms control (thus the New START Treaty) and about moving "toward a world without nuclear weapons" (as explained in the last chapter of the NPR).

The NPR attempts to provide incentives for nonaligned developing countries to abstain from their own nuclear weapons programs. Obama has changed the United States’s nuclear declaratory policy, with a new promise not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries that are in compliance with the NPT. Meanwhile, to reassure allies and skeptical senators about the United States’ continued protective role in the world, the NPR boasts about America’s overwhelming and expanding conventional military dominance, its plans to modernize its nuclear bomber and ballistic missile submarine force, and the money the country will shower on its nuclear laboratories to guarantee the reliability and extend the life span of the country’s nuclear warheads.

What might the leader of a nonaligned developing country make of the NPR? Many undoubtedly will receive the second message, namely that nothing has changed. And the new declaratory policy won’t mean much to them because it can change at any moment.

What these leaders likely have noticed is that nuclear breakout countries such as India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea suffered no enduring penalties for breaking out, are more secure from outside attack, and have been lavished with foreign aid and attention from the great powers.

Thus we should not be surprised if next month’s NPT review conference breaks down in acrimony, as happened at the last review in 2005. Obama and his team are striving mightily to avoid such a repeat and are certainly doing more and taking more risks than George W. Bush’s administration did in 2005. Yet it remains to be seen whether Obama’s careful precursor steps and structured incentives will offset what many developing countries will see as Western meddling in their sovereignty and even a U.S. plot to extend its military hegemony. Obama is right to give his strategy a try — if it fails, it will be important to know what doesn’t work.

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