This Week at War: Karzai Speeds Up the Endgame

The Afghan president pushes the U.S. toward the exit.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Karzai: Don't let the door hit you on the way out

Afghan President Hamid Karzai took two actions this week that seemed deliberately designed to anger his U.S. sponsors. During a stormy meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, he reaffirmed his previous decision to expel the foreign security contractors which provide security for aid and development projects in the country (Karzai later granted a two-month delay to the shutdown).  He then nonchalantly confirmed that he and his staff receive "bags of money," amounting to millions of dollars, on a regular basis from the Iranian government

This one-two punch from Karzai seems specifically designed to undermine Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy. Non-governmental aid organizations are already planning to shut down developments projects as the security contractor deadline looms; for U.S. officials, these development efforts are a major part of winning over the Afghan population. And Karzai's matter-of-fact acknowledgement of Iran's payoffs seems designed to anger and embarrass officials in Washington and perhaps even undermine U.S. public support for the war effort. By undermining U.S. plans, Karzai's actions may be speeding up the end-game for the U.S. campaign.

Karzai: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out

Afghan President Hamid Karzai took two actions this week that seemed deliberately designed to anger his U.S. sponsors. During a stormy meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, he reaffirmed his previous decision to expel the foreign security contractors which provide security for aid and development projects in the country (Karzai later granted a two-month delay to the shutdown).  He then nonchalantly confirmed that he and his staff receive "bags of money," amounting to millions of dollars, on a regular basis from the Iranian government

This one-two punch from Karzai seems specifically designed to undermine Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy. Non-governmental aid organizations are already planning to shut down developments projects as the security contractor deadline looms; for U.S. officials, these development efforts are a major part of winning over the Afghan population. And Karzai’s matter-of-fact acknowledgement of Iran’s payoffs seems designed to anger and embarrass officials in Washington and perhaps even undermine U.S. public support for the war effort. By undermining U.S. plans, Karzai’s actions may be speeding up the end-game for the U.S. campaign.

According to the New York Times, the meeting between Karzai and Petraeus on Oct. 24 to discuss the security contractors ended abruptly with Karzai storming out of the room. At a news conference the next day, Karzai angrily blamed U.S. government support for the contractors for causing the deaths of Afghan civilians. When then asked about Iranian payments to his chief of staff, Karzai replied, ""They do give us bags of money — yes, yes, it is done … We are grateful to the Iranians for this."

U.S. officials have sought to maneuver around the increasingly unreliable Karzai by dealing directly with local Afghan leaders. The president’s suspension of the private security contractors is his reaction to this gambit; it will centralize the flow of development assistance through the ministries he and his team control and reduce sources of cash and favors in the Afghan provinces not under Kabul’s control.

The establishment of a patronage relationship between Karzai and Tehran is logical for both sides and unsurprising. With the United States inevitably heading for the exit, Karzai has an obvious need to diversify his external support. As a neighboring power, Iran has an interest in obtaining influence within Afghanistan. What was surprising was Karzai’s use of this revelation to antagonize U.S. officials and flagrantly flaunt his independence from their plans.

Karzai’s seemingly deliberate attempt to speed up the end-game for the U.S. campaign is now increasingly evident. Perhaps he fears U.S. officials will be too successful establishing rivals to him. Or perhaps he fears that the longer the U.S. campaign goes on, the more chaotic conditions will become and the less control he will have over his own fate.

Whatever his reasoning, this week’s events were evidence that Karzai is not only preparing for a post-American Afghanistan, he seems to be taking steps to hasten its arrival. One wonders how Karzai’s new gambits fit into the U.S. campaign plan and what adjustments to that plan U.S. policymakers might now have to make.

How to handle a troublesome China

According to the New York Times, the Obama administration is giving up on getting much cooperation from China regarding a variety of global problems. "Administration officials speak of an alarming loss of trust and confidence between China and the United States over the past two years, forcing them to scale back hopes of working with the Chinese on major challenges like climate change, nuclear nonproliferation and a new global economic order," the Times reports. If U.S. policymakers no longer expect much voluntary cooperation from China, the next step for these policymakers is to reach for their bags of carrots and sticks in an attempt to guide Chinese behavior in favorable directions. What remains to be seen is whether those carrots and sticks will work on an animal that is already 800 pounds, still growing, and may be feeling restless.

Obama administration officials had hoped that China would match its growing global stature with policies that would help solve some common international security and economic problems. Instead, U.S. officials have apparently concluded that those expectations were unrealistic. Some of China’s foreign policy decisions — such as its continued protection of Kim Jong Il’s regime in North Korea, China’s trade with Iran’s nuclear and military enterprises, and its protection of Burma’s regime from a U.N. human rights investigation — show that China’s main policy priority is to build up its own strategically useful relationships, at the expense of regional security concerns and human rights. Obama administration officials have apparently concluded that China is opting to extract medium-term advantages from the global security system rather than protect the long-run stability of that system.

According to the Times, the Obama administration’s response will be to strengthen its relationships with allies and partners that surround China. Immediately following the November midterm elections in the United States, Obama will tour Japan, Indonesia, India, and South Korea. On Oct. 29, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Hanoi for yet another meeting with East Asian leaders, with numerous other visits in the region (including China) to follow.

If the administration’s previous assumptions regarding Chinese good intentions have not panned out, it certainly makes sense to change tactics. But such a change implies greater resistance to Chinese policies and a corresponding greater risk of tension. Obama and his officials will hope to guide Chinese behavior back onto a cooperative course. Displaying to Chinese officials the strength of America’s alliances in the region seems to be a major pillar of this new approach. That will require allies and partners who are confident in the U.S. commitment to the region, even in the face of possible brinkmanship.

The Obama administration’s new tactics for China will soon get a test. According to Gen. Walter Sharp, the top U.S. commander in South Korea, the USS George Washington carrier strike group will soon return to the Yellow Sea for an exercise with the South Korean navy. In July, the possibility that USS George Washington might appear in the Yellow Sea sparked howls from the Chinese government and media. By providing public notice of the carrier strike group’s imminent arrival in the Yellow Sea, the United States is setting up an explicit test of its new approach to China. We will soon see whether China’s leaders wish to up the ante.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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