The Stressful Relationship

Hamid Karzai might be able to convince Washington of his good intentions this week, but it won't change the bleak reality on the ground in Afghanistan.

Dusan Vranic-pool/Getty Images
Dusan Vranic-pool/Getty Images

When Barack Obama welcomes Hamid Karzai to Washington this week, you won’t hear much, at least officially, about the tension that has defined their relationship thus far. The April media circus over the Afghan president’s erratic behavior — he reportedly threatened to join the Taliban in one bitter anti-Western rant — appears to have spooked both sides into pretending that they are getting along just fine, thank you very much. Obama and Karzai are scheduled to spend what one White House advisor described as an "extraordinary" three hours together. Call it reconciliation — a word more often used to describe the Afghan government’s flailing efforts to bring wayward Taliban over to its side.

Karzai even took to the pages of the Washington Post on Sunday to proclaim his commitment to the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship and a shared "overriding strategic vision of an Afghanistan whose peace and stability can guarantee the safety of the Afghan and the American peoples." And though he engaged in a bit of hyperbole ("Success in Afghanistan will define the course of this young century"), he did manage to hit on all the right buzzwords, from "governance" and "corruption" to "strategic partnership." Nobody has ever accused Karzai of not knowing his audience.

One issue the two men will undoubtedly discuss is Karzai’s upcoming Consultative Peace Jirga, a forum including members of parliament, civil society, and representatives of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts. Karzai hopes to use the event to show national unity and lay out a framework through which members of the Taliban — who have not been invited — can be brought in from the cold.

The Afghan government is working on an ambitious peace plan ahead of the conference that will reportedly get into specific details of how Kabul intends to lure Taliban fighters away from the battlefield. According to the Guardian, the international community has pledged some $160 million for a complex set of activities across 4,000 Afghan villages that include deradicalization programs, job training, and even biometric "reintegration cards." Foot soldiers will get amnesty for any crime they may have committed; top leaders may be offered exile abroad.

If you think the Afghan government will be able pull off something like this when it can’t even collect the garbage, there’s a bridge in Arghandab I’d like to sell you. As an unnamed diplomat told the Guardian, "One gets a sense that there are people on the military side who will do most of the work and then give it some sort of an Afghan face."

But reconciliation talks may be the only game in town, says J Alexander Thier, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "The profusion of players, motivations, conditions, and potential spoilers seems to cast serious doubt on prospects for a negotiated peace," he writes in a recent paper (pdf) for Current History. "But the status quo cannot hold either."

Then there is the upcoming push into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, which the U.S. military initially billed as a grander version of its recent offensive in Marjah. But so far, reviews of that first operation are mixed. According to a recent critical report (pdf) by the International Council on Security and Development, 61 percent of Afghans in the area "feel more negative about NATO forces than before the military offensive." U.S. military spokesmen acknowledge some setbacks, but point to clear signs that residents are returning to the town and economic life is reviving.

Whatever the case, residents of Kandahar don’t seem all that eager to repeat the experiment. Now, U.S. officers are calling the coming offensive there a "process," meaning a slower, longer period of shaping operations aimed at creating a more favorable environment for Western troops.

"Unlike a Marjah operation, where there was a D-day and an H-hour for part of the operation," U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal said back in March, "it is more likely that this will be a series of activities that target different parts of it to increase that security." Typically, this means lining up support from key local elders and using information operations to paint a negative picture of the enemy, among other activities.

But when Karzai visited Kandahar in early April to take the city’s temperature and promote the upcoming offensive, he got an earful from anxious local leaders, who told him they feared the Taliban’s growing strength and despised the city’s corrupt police.

"Listen to me carefully," Karzai responded before an applauding group of some 1,500 turbaned elders. "Until you’re happy and satisfied, we will not conduct this operation." Asked more recently whether public opinion in the city had since turned around, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry said, "We are working on this."

All of which is to say that if Karzai and Obama are able to hug and make up this week, that’s fine and it will probably help prevent the Afghan leader from actively working against U.S. interests. But the hard work is being done on the ground, and much of it by U.S. troops rather than the Afghan government. With little more than a year before Obama’s planned withdrawal, the U.S. military is doing what it always does when faced with an impossible mission on an unrealistic timeline: saluting and muddling through.

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