The Wall Street Journal
Nov. 24-25, 2012
Our Man in Kabul
The darkest pages of Afghan history are reserved for a traitorous king named Shah Shuja. Enthroned by British invaders in 1839, he was ignominiously slaughtered once the routed infidels left.
President Hamid Karzai knows this story well. He hails from the same Pashtun sub-clan as the reviled 19th-century monarch. In their leaflets, poems and songs, the Taliban relentlessly mock Mr. Karzai as the modern-day Shuja, a ruler imposed by outsiders and destined to meet an unhappy end.
In a broken country whose main glory is its history of defeating invading empires, this insult is pernicious and hard to brush off. Brought to power by the U.S. invasion, Mr. Karzai understands that his legitimacy and future survival depend on proving that he is no puppet of the Western unbelievers—no matter how much he actually depends on their money and troops.
This critical contradiction, often misunderstood in the U.S., has crippled President Barack Obama's escalation of the Afghan war, America's longest foreign conflict. It also makes fresh rifts all but inevitable as U.S. troops prepare to come home in two years.
American commanders got a taste of Mr. Karzai's deep ambivalence about the war, ostensibly waged in his government's name, during a visit to Kandahar in 2010. They had flown Mr. Karzai to a meeting with elders in the Taliban's hometown, expecting him to act as a wartime commander and kick off the military offensive that was the centerpiece of Mr. Obama's troop surge.
Instead, as stunned generals looked on, Mr. Karzai called the Taliban "brothers" and told the turbaned elders that the war wouldn't end as long as he was seen as a "foreign stooge." He then asked the elders whether they wanted the offensive to begin. Hearing shouts of "no," Mr. Karzai ordered a halt to the long-planned operation to clear Afghanistan's second-largest city.
This disconnect is now deepening, as Washington begins negotiations on what enduring military presence, if any, the U.S. could have after the Western coalition's mandate ends in 2014. How to deal with an increasingly assertive Mr. Karzai is likely to become one of Mr. Obama's main foreign-policy headaches during his second term.
Mr. Khurram said that the way America has waged war there since 2001 has been "counterproductive," adding that the Taliban, once seemingly vanquished, are resurgent across Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan. "This region is more radical now than 10 years ago," he said.
A close look at Mr. Karzai's growing alienation from the U.S. helps to explain why so many of America's war objectives in Afghanistan remain unfulfilled. It seems increasingly likely that the U.S. will leave behind both an undefeated Taliban insurgency and a dysfunctional government mired in corruption and utterly dependent on foreign aid.
Mr. Karzai described his relationship with the Obama administration as "tension-ridden" in an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. To many U.S. officials, these tensions have translated into a two-front war: a military struggle against the Taliban and a more insidious, parallel political tussle with the Afghan leader.
Aware of Afghanistan's history, Mr. Karzai opposed the very notion of a U.S. counterinsurgency campaign, fearing that the insertion of American troops into traditional Afghan villages, and the casualties that they cause, would end up reinvigorating the Taliban. He has also argued that U.S. military operations are meaningless without first confronting Pakistan, which provides havens and support to Afghan insurgents—allowing the Taliban to bounce back after every offensive.
In Kandahar in 2010, this meant that the U.S. had to scramble to revise the military campaign as it sought to satisfy Mr. Karzai's demands. The military abandoned plans to ring the city with Baghdad-style checkpoints, biometric control posts and walls to filter out insurgents—measures that Mr. Karzai, a Kandahar native himself, thought would erode support for his government. Major sweeps were called off.
These days, the Taliban are still a potent force in Kandahar, carrying out assassinations almost every week. Nationally, the insurgents manage to pull off more attacks, roughly 100 a day, than when Mr. Obama first entered the White House, according to the U.S.-led coalition.
Defying skeptics who once portrayed him as a faintly ridiculous "mayor of Kabul," Mr. Karzai has emerged as a surprisingly powerful figure in his struggle with Washington to claw back Afghan sovereignty. This year he forced the U.S. to stop unilateral Special Operations night raids, a key tactic in the war against the Taliban. He insisted on taking custody of hundreds of insurgent suspects held by the U.S. at the Bagram airfield, releasing many of them in a so-far failed effort to convince the Taliban to open peace talks. He also disbanded Western-backed private security firms and deftly removed cabinet ministers and provincial governors whom he suspected of becoming too close to the U.S.
"Karzai was seen in the West as a weak person. This is wrong: Karzai has dominated the Afghan political scene for a decade, and he wouldn't have been able to do that if he was not a strong personality and a clever tactician," said Kai Eide, a senior Norwegian diplomat who, as head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, closely interacted with the Afghan president. "I don't think anybody underestimates him now."
The lesson that Mr. Karzai has learned from these confrontations with Washington, a former palace insider said, is that the U.S. will end up yielding to him no matter what he demands. "He kept telling us: 'The U.S. has no breaking point; when you push them, the Americans always step back.' He said, 'They will never say that you're a bad boy and we're leaving.' "
In recent weeks, Mr. Karzai further rankled the U.S. by ordering the ouster of international representatives from the country's elections- watchdog agency and by suggesting that Afghanistan may deny U.S. troops immunity from local law after 2014—the deal-breaker in similar talks in Iraq. He also threatened to turn to China and Russia as alternative military allies and intensified his criticism of the coalition, regularly issuing statements that condemn the U.S. for causing civilian casualties.
In this posturing, Mr. Karzai may end up overplaying his hand and misjudging the public mood in the U.S. and in other coalition countries that are increasingly losing patience with Afghanistan and its president, senior U.S. officials warn.
"The constant drumbeat of criticism of the West by President Karzai is corrosive to our long-term relationship," said one senior U.S. official. "While everyone understands President Karzai's concern for Afghan sovereignty, his recent statements cause grave concerns about his willingness to see things through to 2014 and beyond."
A rupture with the U.S. could have potentially devastating consequences for Afghanistan's future. Afghan security forces would likely fracture without billions of dollars in annual foreign assistance, precipitating a civil war of the kind that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Such a national tragedy could even put in question the physical survival of Mr. Karzai and his family.
"Every morning, I wake up at 3 a.m. and ask myself, 'When will he ever get it?' " said one senior Western diplomat. Mr. Karzai, one former close aide retorts, often wonders the same about his Western counterparts.
"There is a chance we will see the whole edifice crashing down spectacularly, either in 2014 or shortly thereafter," said Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency official who headed the Obama administration's task force that recommended escalating the Afghan war in 2009.
At the time, Mr. Obama ordered the tripling of U.S. troop numbers here, to about 100,000, and committed hundreds of billions of dollars to the campaign. More than two-thirds of the 2,158 American troops killed in Afghanistan have died during his presidency.
Yet, as the Obama administration ramped up the war, it kept the country's president at arm's length, or worse. In 2008, Vice President Joe Biden, then a senator, threw down his napkin and walked out of a dinner with Mr. Karzai in Kabul, after Mr. Karzai minimized the extent of corruption in the government. It was a major insult in the rank-conscious Afghan culture.
Ahead of the August 2009 Afghan elections, the late Richard Holbrooke, who served as U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan, openly talked about the need to disempower the Afghan president, if not to replace him outright. "He thought he was dealing with someone like Milosevic," said Afghanistan's senior minister, Hedayat Amin Arsala.
Relations grew especially chilly after Mr. Obama's December 2010 trip to Afghanistan. Arriving at the height of the surge, Mr. Obama was supposed to visit American troops at the Bagram base, an hour's drive north of Kabul, and then to discuss the war over dinner with Mr. Karzai in the presidential palace.
That night, as Mr. Karzai waited for Mr. Obama—kebabs, Kabuli rice and fresh pomegranate juice at the ready—he received a phone call from Bagram: The American president would not be coming to dinner after all. The U.S. blamed the last-minute cancellation on rough winds that made the short chopper flight from Bagram too dangerous. But Mr. Karzai, a palace insider said, didn't buy the excuse, believing that he had been deliberately snubbed by Mr. Obama as punishment for his statements criticizing the course of the war. It didn't help that, whatever the weather in Bagram, it was a windless night in Kabul. Furious, Mr. Karzai went to his residence and refused to take a video conference call with the American president.
In the following months, Mr. Karzai hardened his stance, as civilian casualties and the destruction of Afghan property mounted during the military operations. His anger with what he perceived as occasional lack of respect from Washington translated into erratic statements, such as public threats to join the Taliban. He also embraced conspiracy theories, once accusing the U.S. of flying the Taliban to northern Afghanistan in order to destabilize that part of the country.
"Issues of private security firms, and civilian casualties, and violations of Afghan homes, and violations of Afghan laws [by the U.S.] had already made things tense," Mr. Karzai said in his interview with the Journal earlier this year. "I have tremendous respect for President Obama. It's not about individual relationships. It's about issues."
The most important of these issues cuts to the very heart of the U.S. war effort. The Afghan president, his aides and foreign diplomats say, was fundamentally opposed to the counterinsurgency strategy that pushed American troops deep into remote, arch-conservative Afghan countryside.
"President Karzai argued that Afghan villages are not really where the source of the problem is, and that the source is mostly outside Afghanistan," said Mr. Arsala, the senior minister who also served as vice president under Mr. Karzai. "But not much was done in that area, and the pressure was put only on the Afghan side of the border—and as a result, there were more civilian casualties. And this has created tension between the Afghan public and the international forces."
Precisely because of such concerns, Mr. Karzai repeatedly frustrated Washington by refusing to welcome Mr. Obama's troop escalation. He also rejected American requests to formally ask other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to send more troops.
Mr. Karzai remains suspicious, too, of the second main pillar of the American war plan: the creation of a 352,000-strong Afghan army and police force. Unlike his security ministers, who eagerly backed the American-funded ramp-up and the gravy train that came with it, Mr. Karzai felt that such a massive force, costing billions of dollars a year, would perpetuate Kabul's dependence on foreigners—and expose him to the possibility of a coup.
Now that the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan, Mr. Karzai and his aides feel that their concerns have been validated. They openly challenge the Obama administration's optimistic assessments of the surge's outcome.
At a recent meeting with the coalition commander, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, a frustrated Mr. Karzai pointed out that the Taliban now operate with impunity at the gates of Kabul, in provinces such as Wardak and Logar that were safer back in 2009, according to officials present there. "Even if there was a surge, it hasn't helped the betterment of the security situation," said Mr. Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
This dispute colors the Afghan government's internal debate about whether to allow the U.S. to keep forces in Afghanistan and project regional influence after 2014. "If the 150,000 foreign troops haven't been successful here so far, how could the 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 that would stay inside their bases after 2014 achieve any success?" said Mr. Khurram, the president's chief of staff. "This is a paradox and a question that must be answered."
"Afghans are poor and destitute, but very proud when it comes to the issue of respect to their sovereignty and security," he said, according to a palace statement. "They would even consider discontinuing the strategic partnership [with the U.S.], as any such partnership would have no practical benefit if it does not translate into peace and stability."
In a vicious cycle, such statements fuel the temptation, steadily growing in Washington and other NATO capitals, simply to walk away from Afghanistan. Mr. Karzai's remarks calling for a diminished American role here, a senior U.S. official warned, "fall into the category of 'Be careful of what you wish for.' "
— Maria Abi-Habib contributed to this article
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared November 24, 2012, on page C1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: OurMan InKabul?.