War Stories

Condi Artist

Watching the secretary dissemble in Afghanistan.

Condoleezza Rice with Afghan President Hamid Karzai 

It was good of Condoleezza Rice to stop off in Kabul yesterday, on her way to Moscow, to stand beside President Hamid Karzai and pledge the United States’ “enduring commitment” to Afghanistan’s security and reconstruction.

But before the secretary of state hopped back into the armored car for her short and speedy ride to the airport (where her plane took off in a near-vertical climb to avoid anti-aircraft fire), did she leave behind a pot of gold, a warehouse of weapons and bulldozers, a promise to double (or at least not to cut) American troops—any tangible sign of our allegiance, something that Karzai could point to as proof to his looming doubters that he is the only Afghan leader able to reap goods and favors from the world’s wealthy powers?

There was reportedly some background talk on the press plane of a pending increase in aid—beyond President Bush’s emergency supplemental request last spring—but nothing major, nothing transformative.

The Bush administration is doing quite a bit already, as is NATO. But the Western alliance signed up to a level of commitment—in troops, money, development assistance, and so forth—well before the recent surge of Taliban attacks, which have been much larger, fiercer, and better-coordinated than anyone had anticipated.

By this fall, the United States is scheduled to cut back its troops from 23,000 to 18,000, while other NATO countries will boost theirs from 11,000 to 18,000. However, on a NATO-sponsored trip to Afghanistan that I took two weeks ago, one clear (though on background) message was that there aren’t enough troops for the mission. As for the nascent Afghan National Army, which the United States and Britain are training, it’s not ready for prime time, and, even so, the commandant of the training academy—an experienced Afghan general—said his country needs far more than the 70,000 homegrown soldiers that NATO has agreed to finance.

The problems go far beyond a surging Taliban and inadequate troop levels. Afghanistan suffers the legacy of 30 years of horrific conflict and civil war—dire poverty, a bare-bones treasury, massive corruption at all levels of government, rampant crime, a wrecked infrastructure, an economy dependent on opium crops—as well as a rugged, mountainous terrain that may be less hospitable to nation-building than any patch of land on earth.

As noted in my earlier dispatches, NATO’s commanders have devised an intriguing strategy—a revival of classic counterinsurgency theory, combined with high-tech communications and more than a dollop of precision air power—but the real question is whether Afghanistan is too far gone for any strategy to matter.

So, Secretary Rice was in a tough spot as she stood there yesterday in Kabul, touting our great friendship with Karzai, pledging not to abandon him like we abandoned Afghanistan before—but, in the end, having no rabbit, or other magic tricks, to pull from her sleeve.

Still, if the point of her visit was to reaffirm our support for Karzai and to extinguish all doubt about America’s intentions to stick around for the long haul, she tarnished her credibility by lacing her messages with so much blatant nonsense.

It began with her opening comments at the press conference, in which she thanked Karzai for his “superb leadership,” for bringing “unity and hope to the Afghan people and indeed to the region and to the world.”

Then came her answer to the first question: “I have the greatest confidence that the democratic institutions and the democratic future of Afghanistan are indeed getting stronger and stronger each day.”

Finally, she jumped the shark at a question she answered about reports that Karzai was losing favor among Western allies. “I don’t know anyone,” Rice exclaimed, “who is more admired and respected in the international community than President Karzai, for his strength, for his wisdom, and for his courage to lead this country.”

I wasn’t at the press conference, but I can picture two dozen sets of eyeballs rolling. Karzai is certainly an admirable figure. His presidency is stable, in the sense that no serious challengers are in the wings; he has democratic instincts; and he’s probably doing his best under trying circumstances. But it is no secret that he’s beginning to infuriate his international supporters.

Here are some notes that I took in Afghanistan during conversations with NATO officers and political advisers: “Pressures on Karzai have reduced his self-confidence. … Patchy relations with the international community. … He’s indecisive, lashes out. … He has limited power bases, so reaches out to warlords, drug lords, has appointed too many officials who are incompetent or corrupt.”

A few weeks ago, Karzai responded to the surge of violence in the south by ordering two regional governors to adopt a policy of “community policing”—a euphemism for deputizing militias. The action outraged several Western governments that have devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to the task of disarming these militias.

Karzai took this step out of desperation. His national army is ill-equipped; the foreign armies are too small; the militias are all he has, in certain parts of the country, to fend off the Taliban. Of course he winds up further indebted to the warlords who run the militias. Of course their empowerment undercuts the central government’s authority—when NATO’s main mission is to extend that authority throughout the country.

All of which raises two serious questions about Secretary Rice’s visit. First, if the United States is genuinely committed to helping Afghanistan, where are the resources and the troops to obviate the need for reinvigorating the warlords? Second, and perhaps more seriously, if she feels free to make statements about Karzai that are so widely known to be so off-base—distortions that go way beyond the customary courtesies of diplomatic boilerplate—why should anyone believe her words about America’s commitment?