Best Defense

The Karzai I knew then is different from the Karzai I see now — but he has some good reasons for weirding out

Recently when re-reading Lewis Sorley’s A Better War I was struck by his comparison of American and Vietnamese leaders: "Ngueyn Van Thieu, for example, was arguably a more honest and decent man than Lyndon Johnson and…quite likely a more effective president of his country. General Vien was at least as professional and dedicated as General ...


Recently when re-reading Lewis Sorley’s A Better War I was struck by his comparison of American and Vietnamese leaders: "Ngueyn Van Thieu, for example, was arguably a more honest and decent man than Lyndon Johnson and…quite likely a more effective president of his country. General Vien was at least as professional and dedicated as General Earle G. Wheeler, and probably somewhat less irrelevant." (P. 186)

Keep that in mind as we consider our Iraqi and Afghan allies-for example, Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This guest column speaks to that issue: 

By Lt. Cdr. James Sisco
Best Defense guest columnist

From November 2005 to May 2006 I served as the military liaison between Combined Forces Campaign-Afghanistan (CFC-A) and President Karzai. My primary responsibility was to coordinate and assist implementation of the president’s regional engagement tours-that is, internal trips throughout Afghanistan. Through these trips, I developed close personal relationships with key members within the palace and was able to view President Karzai outside traditional scrutiny or examination.

The socio-political climate was considerably different during that period. The relationship between CFC-A and the palace was constructive and professional, the security situation was improving and President Karzai’s approval rating among Afghans was nearly 98 percent, based on survey results. On a more personal level, I had unrestricted access to the palace, meeting and speaking with senior Afghan Officials on a regular basis. This permissive environment resulted in fluid communication and robust coordination to support engagement tours and a host of other events.

President Karzai was also much different during that period. Through these trips and personal interactions, I observed a man with a profound conviction toward moving Afghanistan forward, delivering peace and security and a better way of life for the people of Afghanistan. He was tireless in his efforts, demonstrated through his long hours in the palace and seemingly endless engagements. This sincere desire to engage with and lead the Afghan people was exemplified during a trip to Qal-e-Naw. The Presidential Protective Service implemented such extreme security restrictions that local Afghans were not allowed to participate in a road opening ceremony. This outraged Karzai. When we returned to Kabul I was privy to a meeting where Karzai lambasted his staff, stating, "How can I be the president of the people when the people cannot see me?" On another trip to Baghdis, Karzai stopped the motorcade, jumped out of the car, crossed a stream, and climbed a wall to greet hundreds of Afghans waiting to catch a glimpse of the their beloved President.   

I returned to Afghanistan in 2010, this time as an Afghan Hand eager to assist the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition, my Afghan friends, and the Afghan government with President Karzai as its leader. However, I quickly realized the Afghanistan I left was quite different than the one to which I returned. The security situation had deteriorated significantly, the relationship between the palace and the coalition had become virtually non-existent and President Karzai’s approval rating had declined. Perhaps even more troubling, I encountered a political bureaucracy and draconian security restrictions within ISAF that restricted access to my Afghan colleagues and the palace.

I also realized that the President Karzai that I had grown to admire and respect had changed. With a new understanding the socio-political environment through my Afghan colleagues, in-depth analysis and personal observations, I became highly critical of Karzai. This critical view led me to publish a series of articles which illustrated Karzai’s political strategy that focused on consolidating and retaining power by establishing a patronage network based on an economy of extraction. I now see a president who has lost touch with the Afghan people, as he rarely leaves Kabul and is isolated by a staff whose interest do not serve him or the Afghan people and a person more concerned with his political future, safety and security than the security and welfare of the Afghan population.

However, these changes in character are not the result of a psychological manifestation, and can be partly attributed to the actions of the United States, the international community, and other coalition nations, each with its own agenda and objectives. Numerous and sometimes contradictory changes in strategy, transition of administrations and shifts in policy have left Karzai guessing as to the true intentions of United States and other coalition nations. Therefore, he has done what any reasonable person in his situation would do: Create an environment to ensure his political future and security. Though often portrayed as off-balance or crazy, these actions serve only to demonstrate his experience and political savvy.   

I truly believe that the President Karzai I was fortunate to know in 2006 still exists. We should not view Karzai as a tyrant or opponent to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. Rather, he should be viewed in the context of Afghan history, as a leader who does not want to end up like Najibullah. In order to better align U.S, and Coalition interests with those of President Karzai – and attempting to improve mutual outcomes — we should make every effort to support him, starting by improving communications and implementing a coherent strategy agreed upon by all.

LCDR James Sisco is an Afghan Hand currently serving in Afghanistan at ISAF HQ within the Force Reintegration Directorate. He previously serviced in Afghanistan in 2005-2006 as the military liaison for President Karzai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ISAF, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or Manny Ramirez.

UPDATE: The author of this article is apparently taking some heat from his superiors for the headline on this item. I just want to make it clear that I wrote the headline, not him. Nor did he see the headline before the item was posted. So I think less leaning on the guy and more appreciation of his good policy analysis is in order.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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