The South Asia Channel

AfPak Behind the Lines: Karzai’s connections

The AfPak Channel is pleased to continue a new weekly feature, AfPak Behind the Lines, where we interview an expert on a hot topic in Afghanistan and Pakistan circles. Today, we speak with Martine van Bijlert about Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s relationships with players in the country and abroad. Van Bijlert is speaking with New ...


The AfPak Channel is pleased to continue a new weekly feature, AfPak Behind the Lines, where we interview an expert on a hot topic in Afghanistan and Pakistan circles. Today, we speak with Martine van Bijlert about Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s relationships with players in the country and abroad. Van Bijlert is speaking with New America Foundation president Steve Coll tomorrow morning at 10:15am EST.

1. Karzai expressed his support for General McChrystal in the aftermath of the explosive Rolling Stone profile of the general. How does the general’s resignation affect the campaign in Afghanistan, on a medium to long term basis? What do we know about Karzai’s — and his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai’s — relationship with Gen. Petraeus?

The U.S. administration has gone out of its way to send the message that there will be no fundamental change in the military strategy and that the campaign will not be affected by the departure of McChrystal. The question is whether this "business as usual" message is the one you want to be giving. More importantly, it is not even clear what an unchanged strategy would look like on the ground. The surge, with at the forefront the operation in Marjah and the planned operation in Kandahar, has not succeeded in changing the mood, let alone the strategic realities. The military part of the Kandahar operation has been postponed. McChrystal is said to have been giving rather bleak briefings just before his removal. It is not clear how Petraeus will deal with this, whether he will push ahead with the Kandahar operation and what that will look like. How he will deal with the plunging mood and the growing consensus that, with these very tight timelines, all the different efforts are unlikely to bring enough visible change, soon enough. And how the shift towards a more political track will affect the military side of things.

On a more tactical level there is the question on what version of the ‘population-centric’ approach Petraeus will follow. There has been talk about the differences between McChrystal’s "courageous restraint" and Petraeus’ "strategic patience." And there have been reports of grumbling within the military against McChrystal’s guidelines: that they made no military or tactical sense on the battlefield; that they prevented soldiers from hitting the enemy when they wanted to. Soldiers seemed to feel McChrystal was being too soft. A view from the ground shows a more mixed picture. On one hand, McChrystal has been much more sensitive to the damaging effects of civilian casualties, which is good, but for people living in insurgency affected areas it has not been enough to take away the fear and the anger. The number of air strikes has gone down, but the number of night raids — often with lethal force — has not. People are still being dragged from their homes or shot in their sleep for no reason at all, because there was a mix-up of identity or because someone reported on them falsely. There is a cleaned-up side to the military operations and there is a side that happens under the cover of darkness.

On the dealings with Karzai and his family, it is clear that General McChrystal invested heavily in his relationship with the president and that he probably did gain his trust, at least to the extent possible given Karzai’s suspicions. It helped that McChrystal refrained from criticizing Karzai in public or, as far as I know, pushing him in private. He mainly focused on building him up in his role as commander in chief, so that this would help create the conditions for what was supposed to be Afghan-led military operations. His approach seemed to have worked, in that he had better relations with Karzai than most, but it was also often quite artificial.

Petraeus is quite likely to have a good working relationship with Karzai as well. He may be a little less publicly uncritical in his support for him as a partner and a leader, which would not necessarily be a bad thing — although it is complicated. It’s quite a dilemma that all the ambassadors and generals and special representatives have faced. If you push him too hard, the relationship becomes difficult. But being careful and circumspect, and thinking that you have a relationship of trust and influence, does not prevent you from being played with. 

2. After all the discussion last week in the United States about the civil-military relationship, what can you tell us about Karzai’s relationship with the Afghan security forces — the Army and Police in particular, both often described as inept and corrupt?

Karzai has a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the Afghan security forces. He is not sure he can fully trust them or to what extent they truly report to him. The June 2006 riots in Kabul were quite traumatic. For hours Karzai was unable to reach the officials who were responsible for security and for a whole day he heard rumors of rampaging crowds, while he was not sure how bad it was or whether they were coming for him. So he is not sure they are able or committed to protect him when push comes to shove. There is lingering fear of a coup, the fear that the army, the police or the NDS [Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security] may one day turn against him. This is of course fed by Afghanistan’s troubled history, but also by his suspicion that the internationals at some point may want to get rid of him. And finally his role as commander in chief is overshadowed by the dominance of U.S. and NATO military forces. Even though they try to portray the image of an Afghan lead and the practice of consultation, practically he has relatively little to say about the country’s military strategies and operations.

3. What is Karzai’s relationship like with the country’s parliament? What preparations are underway for this fall’s scheduled parliamentary elections, and how does the commotion that surrounded last summer’s presidential election affect the run-up to September?

Karzai’s relationship with the current Parliament is quite a troubled one. He is fed up with having a body that second guesses him and that votes off his candidate ministers, often for random reasons, and he is quite keen to have a more cooperative Parliament next time. So there be will interference by government officials — well, there will basically be interference by everybody. Most candidates are not only preparing for their campaigns and for the fact that they will need money for material, transport and food and gifts, they are also preparing for fraud — whether their own or by their rivals. It has become a part of the competition. But the fraud will probably not be as blatant and exaggerated as last year. The numbers needed to win are a lot less, given that these are local elections, and people have learned. The Independent Election Commission will probably also be more professional, which does not mean that there will be no in-house manipulation, but it will probably be more difficult to track. 

For now, the next confrontation with between Karzai and the parliament will take place around the vote on the seven newly introduced candidate-ministers. A vote like this is good opportunity for MPs to both flex their muscles and to reopen negotiations with the government. It will be interesting to see how many MPs will be convinced to vote in the ministers, particularly as they voted several of them off before.

Editor’s note: this interview was conducted before the Wolesi Jirga approved five of Karzai’s seven nominations this morning. Seven of the 25 cabinet posts remain open.

Martine van Bijlert is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

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