War Stories

Crazy Like a Fox

What exactly is Hamid Karzai trying to accomplish with his latest comments?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and US Central Command chief General David Petraeus. Click image to expand.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Is Hamid Karzai crazy? Maybe. But to several senior U.S. and NATO officials, civilian and military, the Afghan president’s mental state is, at the moment, the least of their worries. Their bigger fear, triggered by an interview that Karzai gave on Nov. 13 to the Washington Post, is that his goals in the war are very different from U.S. goals and that this divergence, first, may be reaching a crisis point and, second, will make victory—by even the loosest definition—harder than it already was.

In the Post interview, Karzai made several remarkable statements. Among them:

“The time has come to reduce military operations.” This, just as the last of President Obama’s surge troops are arriving in country and on the eve of a much-heralded NATO conference where the Western alliance will commit to staying in the war through at least 2014.

“[Y]ou can have the U.S. presence in the bases where they are, you can have necessary activities along the [Pakistan] border… but the majority of day-to-day activities where security is concerned … is the job of the Afghan people, the Afghan government.” This, in direct contradiction to the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy of blending troops in with the people (to protect them and to better gather intelligence about the Taliban) and in defiance of the fact that the Afghan army is yet not ready to provide security on its own.

“The raiding [of] homes at night [is] terrible, terrible … Bursting into homes at night, arresting Afghans, this isn’t the business of any foreign troops, Afghans have to do that.” This, even though these night raids against Taliban militants are a crucial part of the present U.S. strategy, even though Karzai formally agreed to these raids, and even though the raids are joint operations with Afghan soldiers in the lead.

In short, this was not a replay of Karzai’s outburst in April, when he accused Americans of rigging the Afghan elections and threatened to join the Taliban himself. That was a serious episode, but it calmed down after a soothing one-on-one between Obama and Karzai in the Oval Office. The Post interview was something different. And to make sure everyone got that point, Gen. David Petraeus told the Post, on the record, that he read Karzai’s remarks with “astonishment and disappointment.” He also let it be known that Karzai’s remarks made his own position as U.S. commander in Afghanistan “untenable.”

This was an unusual, and uncharacteristic, step on the part of Petraeus, who usually handles these kinds of tensions calmly and quietly. He clearly knew that the sheer act of making such a statement publicly would alert the right people that things were getting seriously bad.

Right on cue, Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omer, swiftly backpedaled, insisting that his boss has only the highest regard for the good general and that his words in the interview reflect only that the United States and Afghanistan have a “maturing partnership,” in which “there is room for reflection on both sides.” Following up, Gen. Douglas Lute, Obama’s special adviser on Afghanistan, assured White House reporters at a news conference the next day that Karzai’s remarks amounted to “a call for an Afghanistan that eventually is stable, fully sovereign, and self-reliant—and, in that call, we have a lot in common.”

It was a standard diplomatic pas de deux and, as such ceremonies usually are, an evasion. There is no getting around the fact that Karzai’s remarks constitute a rebuking of the U.S. war strategy. It would be bad enough if two allied commanders disagreed so strongly about such a core issue. It’s potentially catastrophic for the president of the host nation to diss the strategy—and, by implication, the commanders, soldiers, and money that are the only things separating him from a noose and a lamppost. (As the New York Times’ Dexter Filkins recently told Charlie Rose, if we announced that our troops were leaving on Monday, Karzai would leave on Sunday.)

Then again, from his vantage point, Karzai isn’t behaving unreasonably. The night raids are angering a fair number of Afghans, especially those whose homes are raided by mistake (though it’s also the case that many Afghans are thankful that hundreds of Taliban fighters, whom they fear much more, are being killed or captured). Karzai says, and perhaps genuinely believes, that the stepped-up attacks—not only by special-ops forces but also by airstrikes and drones—are radicalizing the population more than they’re truly defeating the insurgents. He may even be right.

But what seems to be troubling Karzai above all is that the U.S. counterinsurgency tactics are, in effect, diminishing his own power. Take this rambling passage from the Post interview:

Plus, so many other things, the violence and the violation of our laws that these private security firms cause, the parallel structures, the PRTs [Provisional Reconstruction Teams] running a parallel government to the Afghan government in provinces, the money that they spend without accountability and without us knowing. …

Karzai has complained before about the private security firms, which the U.S. and other governments have hired to protect aid workers and diplomats. He recently signed a decree ousting them from Afghanistan. According to some officials, Karzai’s real concern here is that the foreign governments haven’t been hiring the security firms run by his relatives and cronies. If his boys don’t get the business, nobody does.

But a new, and more telling, development is his anger toward the PRTs, the joint civil-military teams, spread out across Afghanistan, that provide economic aid and help build local government institutions. They are “running a parallel government,” as Karzai put it. But, as one official told me, that’s only because Karzai’s government is unable or unwilling to provide any services itself. In that sense, the PRTs in some provinces aren’t so much parallel governments as the only entities resembling governments at all. Without them, there’s nothing—except vacuums for the Taliban to fill.

David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency specialist (and former soldier) who has served as a consultant to several U.S. officials, likes to quote Bernard Fall, the great journalist who covered the insurgency war in Vietnam. It wasn’t that the French or the Americans were outfought, Fall wrote; rather, they were out-governed.

That’s the biggest danger in Afghanistan: Not that the Taliban insurgents will beat U.S. or NATO forces on the battlefield (Petraeus seems to have made tactical gains in the past few months), but rather that they’ll offer more services, security, and justice than Karzai’s government can manage.

This is why officials were so alarmed by Karzai’s interview in the Post. It revealed him railing against the very strategy and tactics that are designed to give his government the breathing space—the secure environment—to let it provide services, security, and justice. It is a strategy designed to show the Afghan people that they don’t need the Taliban for those things—that Karzai’s government can provide them as well or better.

And Karzai was saying these things just as the leaders of the NATO nations were about to take a deep breath and commit themselves to this war for more years and with more troops—and at a time when, in general, the people of the NATO nations are growing impatient about the war’s less-than-sparkling prospects.

One thin-ray caveat shines through all this: Karzai hasn’t yet acted on his complaints. The night raids and the drone strikes continue, unabated. The PRTs are still doing their work. The military operations in Kandahar roar on. He’s even, quietly, stretched the timetable under which the private contractors have to leave.

For now.

The broader point, however, stands. Counterinsurgency campaigns can be fought only with, and on behalf of, the host government. There will almost inevitably be disagreements between the host and the foreign allies. But when the discord deepens as much as it’s on the verge of doing in this case, then the war itself is endangered. The counterinsurgent soldiers—in this case, U.S. and NATO troops—can’t rely on the host government to follow through on their tactical victories, and the people who are loyal to the host government are urged to see the counterinsurgent soldiers as illegitimate invaders. That’s a recipe for failure.

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