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Maybe there is an Afghan logic to Karzai that we don’t understand

Reading this piece analyzing Karzai’s apparently self-defeating — indubitably, American-mission-threatening — behavior reminded me of an interaction I once had with him. The background to the story was a dispute between the Bush Administration, which was interested in pursuing aerial spraying to eradicate the poppy fields supplying the drug trade and the Karzai Administration, which ...

Phil Goodwin/Getty Images
Phil Goodwin/Getty Images
Phil Goodwin/Getty Images

Reading this piece analyzing Karzai's apparently self-defeating -- indubitably, American-mission-threatening -- behavior reminded me of an interaction I once had with him.

The background to the story was a dispute between the Bush Administration, which was interested in pursuing aerial spraying to eradicate the poppy fields supplying the drug trade and the Karzai Administration, which claimed to support the goal of stopping the drug trade but just opposed the idea of aerial spraying.

My theory at the time was that Karzai actually opposed eradication and would have complained regardless of the method. At the time, this reminded me of a scene from a favorite childhood book of mine, Cheaper by the Dozen. In the book, as I remember it, the mother was objecting to the locus of the spanking applied by the father: "Not the seat of pants, dear.  Not there." But when he shifted to apply the spanking elsewhere, he got the same objection: "Not the top of the head, dear. Not there." Exasperated, the father bellowed, "Where can I spank him?"  The reply was classic, "I don't know where, but not there, dear. Not there."

Reading this piece analyzing Karzai’s apparently self-defeating — indubitably, American-mission-threatening — behavior reminded me of an interaction I once had with him.

The background to the story was a dispute between the Bush Administration, which was interested in pursuing aerial spraying to eradicate the poppy fields supplying the drug trade and the Karzai Administration, which claimed to support the goal of stopping the drug trade but just opposed the idea of aerial spraying.

My theory at the time was that Karzai actually opposed eradication and would have complained regardless of the method. At the time, this reminded me of a scene from a favorite childhood book of mine, Cheaper by the Dozen. In the book, as I remember it, the mother was objecting to the locus of the spanking applied by the father: "Not the seat of pants, dear.  Not there." But when he shifted to apply the spanking elsewhere, he got the same objection: "Not the top of the head, dear. Not there." Exasperated, the father bellowed, "Where can I spank him?"  The reply was classic, "I don’t know where, but not there, dear. Not there."

Karzai claimed that was not the case, and when we pressed him for an explanation, he gave one that none of us had anticipated. He said we should do truck-based spraying, not aerial spraying, because that way the Afghan farmers would be able to shoot at the trucks in defense of their fields. As I recall, the conversation went something like this….

"Wouldn’t that block the spraying?" 

"Not really. You could shoot back and the trucks would finish the job."

"But why not just do the aerial spraying and be done with it? It is safer and more efficient."

"Because the Afghan people will resent it so much more if they can’t shoot back. They won’t like losing the crops either way, but they will learn to live with it if they had a chance to shoot back while you were doing it. If you just do it from the air, they will feel powerless and the resentment will grow." 

It was not at all how we thought about the problem and perhaps it was not the real reason anyway. Perhaps Karzai calculated that the risks of ground-spraying would be enough for us to be deterred from proceeding.

But his explanation has always stuck with me, and it has a certain perverse logic to it. It certainly seems to me like Karzai is "taking pot-shots at the trucks," as it were. Maybe there is an Afghan logic to it.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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