Small Wars Journal

Stop Lecturing Karzai

Publicly Criticizing the Afghan President Hurts the U.S. - Michael O'Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan, Washington Post opinion

Just four days after President Obama's surprise visit to Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave a major speech complaining that heavy-handed international actions tarnished last year's presidential election, diminished his legitimate status as clear winner and risked making the foreign military presence resemble the imperialist invaders of yesteryear.

Karzai went too far. His comments were unfair and risked encouraging critics of the Afghanistan mission who want to portray foreign forces as unwelcome. But his remarks were also a predictable result of American browbeating. Historically, negative treatment of the Afghan leader has produced these sorts of reactions. Kabul and Washington are partners in the effort to create a stable, democratic state; they should understand that public displays of rancor are best avoided...

More at The Washington Post.


Karzai Blames Foreigners for Afghan Vote Fraud - Voice of America

Afghan President Rebukes West and U.N. - New York Times

Karzai Rails Against Foreign Presence - Washington Post

Karzai Blames Western Officials for Election Fraud - Los Angeles Times

Karzai Calls Clinton to Clarify Critical Remarks - Voice of America

In Call, Karzai Tries to Clarify a Diatribe - New York Times

Karzai Clarifies Remarks that Sparked White House 'Concern' - Washington Post

President Karzai Lashes Out - New York Times editorial


Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Wed, 04/07/2010 - 2:22pm

"Lack of Reliable and Acceptable Afghan Leadership

Afghan President Hamed Karzai sought to rally public support for an upcoming military operation in the Talibans birthplace, promising that U.S. and NATO troops will push into insurgent areas only after consultations with tribal leaders.

As he was speaking to about 2,000 officials and tribal leaders in Kandahar last Sunday, in the background was a huge portrait of King Zahir Shah--the popular ex Afghan monarch-- that was used to draw constituency for the support of the operation. This clearly shows a lack of Karzais "Poplazai" tribal strength compared to the ex-monarch; whose tribal clan has overwhelmingly higher acceptance within the tribal hierarchies and structure in Kandahar--where all the identities are given weight--and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

One must bear in mind, if Kandahar is the key to success in Afghanistan, then a popular tribal acceptance and representation is the key to a balance of power; and consequently to an imminent restoration of peace in the Pashtun Heartland. Therefore, this has been "the" prime flaw for the West since the Bonn conference; by not recognizing this tribal phenomenon, they have wasted time, money and lives.

Although many, including some US Congressional individuals like Dana Rohrabacher and Edward Royce, had enthusiastically advocated for a balanced Afghan tribal leadership consideration prior to the Bonn agreement, an Afghan born US envoy to Afghanistan by the name of Zalmay Khalilzad had the ears of the Bush administration and manipulated the interim Afghan government process that pronounced Karzai as the leader of the post Taliban government.

Hamed Karzais most recent intrigue; vote rigging, then charging foreigners and the UN for the presidential election fraud; power grabbing, by dismissing independent election monitors; siding with Ahadinejad, twice taking trips to Iran at the expense of the US; making the comment, "if the West were seen as an invader and the Afghan government its mercenaries," he goes on to say, "the Taliban-led insurgency could become a national resistance"; and finally, he is now saying that if he is pushed too hard for reform by the West, he will join the Taliban insurgency.

This is clearly no April fools day joke; while politically embarrassing, Karzais remarks were neither unprecedented nor, in perspective, surprising. He might only be trying to create more political maneuvering room for himself, or he might be serious. Either way, the relationship between Kabul and Washington is in serious crises."

Maybe it is time to fully understand the "game" Karzai is playing and push the one tribe at a time concept which would in fact rebalance the tribal influence which has been greatly damaged since Bonn?


Wed, 04/07/2010 - 1:28pm

Robert, I agree completely with the notion that invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was a bad way of achieving whatever anti-terrorism objectives were to be achieved (though I suspect that in all these invasions, objectives other than the slated objectives also play a role or even play a major role). But I am more than a little interested in how any attempt to get out of this mess is handled. It is possible to leave without leaving the region in a bigger mess than it was before the US attacked. But it is also possible to leave an even bigger mess behind. My main concern is really India and Pakistan. Various "war on terror" pressures have forced Pakistan to back away from a suicidal jihadi policy (suicidal because the ultimate end would have been a huge war with India). Meanwhile, the first glimmers of real development have made it possible for some Indians to start thinking of bigger things than making chumps out of Pakistani generals. These are very positive developments in my home region, but depending on how the US handles its retreat, they could all be swept away and replaced with a new proxy war in Afghanistan and renewed zero-sum games in Kashmir, Bengal and elsewhere. I understand that a hard-headed US analyst may conclude that is not the problem of the United States, but some forks in this road lead to much broader I continue to hope that the retreat will be orderly and will not re-energize the most stupid war in a region full of stupid wars.

"Karzai must distance himself from the West and reach out to opponents. Many of those opponents are also looking for a good excuse to distance themselves from their masters in Pakistan as well."

I have some questions about this. Why would said opponents really want so badly to distance themselves from the Pak Army/ISI? They would be giving up recruits, training and sanctuary; maybe money too.

Wouldn't the Pak Army/ISI try to prevent them from breaking away by making convenient arrests and tipping off drone operators etc.?

If a group did break away, would the Pakistani manipulators just back another group or find some other way to make mischief? Their perceived interests in Afghanistan would not have changed.

Bob's World

Tue, 04/06/2010 - 11:06pm

We just need to remain objective, and keep an eye on the big picture. Strategically we need Karzai to have separation from the US, so shouldn't get too squirrly over his word choice.

As to the quote pulled by Outlaw above, I don't think the US is ready to accept what the answer to that question would be if put out to global polling. I suspect most would say that of course the US invaded Afghanistan; and I suspect most see the US as fairly imperialist as well. Remember who his target audiance is, its not the US, it is the members of his popualce who support the very groups named (AQ and Taliban).

As to Omar, I don't know that the US is desparate to get out, but perhaps the US is wising up to the fact that the best way to defend the US against terrorism is not through an occupation of Afghanistan. Time will tell. I don't think that anyone can argue that based upon the great succes of the past 8 years we should simply sustain the staus quo, so approaches must change. Personally I see positive trends at the strategic level.


Tue, 04/06/2010 - 10:18pm

To an outside observer it does look like the US is desperate to get out and is willing to let the ISI take the contract. Karzai can see this coming and may be getting ready for the days to come....

Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Tue, 04/06/2010 - 3:06pm

To RC Jones:

"Karzai's latest remarks raise a more alarming question still: Is it possible for Western governments to work by, with, and through an Afghan president who denounces them at every turn, even to the point of characterizing them as imperialist invaders, thus affirming the main talking point of the Taliban and al-Qaida?"

Valid point if I say so.

Bob's World

Tue, 04/06/2010 - 1:24am

Personnally I find the nature, if not the exact comments, of Mr. Karzai's recent engagements to be Spot On. He must create among his populace perceptions of separation from the West and willingness to work with internal competitors to his current GIROA. All of this builds to the big Peace Jirga, which is our last, best hope to create the perceptions of GIROA Legitimacy that are the mandatory first step for ending the insurgency.

Military operations are merely shaping operations in COIN; critical, but supporting all the same.

As to neat categories of "Drug Lord"; "War Lord"; "GIROA"; "Taliban"; etc: These exist largely in our Western minds. The reality here in Afghanistan is that all of these things intertwine and inter-relate. Frankly I would be shocked beyond words to find out that Mr. Karzai DID NOT have some degree of connections to all of these things. He'd be a pretty piss-poor Afghan powerbroker if he didn't.

My assessment remains the same: The West needs to relax as this is a win-win. Either Karzai creates the degree of Legitimacy in his government necessary to allow COIN efforts (and our Coalition support to the same) to begin to become more effective and less obtrusive and violent; OR he fails in that, but is so outrageous in his efforts that we can simply say "F-you" and go home. I really don't see a downside.

Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Mon, 04/05/2010 - 1:50pm

One does have to wonder if in fact our "allied president" is in fact a defacto member of the Taliban?

"KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened over the weekend to quit the political process and join the Taliban if he continued to come under outside pressure to reform, several members of parliament said Monday."

This is the first indicator that he feels the US/NATO will not control the Taliban and are in fact losing the war as he is trying to set himself up as the long lost "cousin" who wants to reunite---now I think is the time to either fish or cut bait as the "investment" of over 300B USDs and over 1000 killed has reached the limits of what is tolerable as a country and military.

I actually would not be surprised to hear at some point that due to the deep Karzai family corruption and ties to warlords and drug lords the Karzai family has long since had deep ties to the Taliban.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Sun, 04/04/2010 - 12:59pm

<em>Browbeating?</em> Karzai's approach to governance is one of the major (and in my opinion, legitimate) fuels for the insurgency, and people are complaining that we're not being polite enough?

leo schmit (not verified)

Sun, 04/04/2010 - 3:48am

Anonymous (above) is Leo Schmit from the Netherlands with some experience in-country.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 04/04/2010 - 3:45am

I appreciate the comments by Jones and Outlaw7, which are very much to the point. Obviously the puppet factor, corruption, declining security, lack of service delivery and excessive dependency on international 'facilitating partners' in basic service sectors, all are working now against Karzai in a big way. Obviously, 'O Hanlon's and Sherjan's assertion that Karzai has a 80% popularity rating among the Afghan people is disproven by his nipt and contested electoral victory. Besides, half of the population cannot read or write, has no access to electricity and news media, and is unable to formulate an informed opinion on electoral matters, or on government as such. Except for what they see with there own eyes, which is not much.

Perhaps a few additional observations: the remedy in this fiasco seems to be a strategy of regression to, in my opinion, illusory traditional tribal mechanisms.

In view of that regressive strategy it seems that Karzai's Peace Jirga requires not only distancing but also delegimatizing the flawed electoral process. You can't have it both at the same time. The same is happening in the security context, where disqualified ANA and ANP units are being replaced by militias. In courts and the justice sector, same story, informal arbitration and jirga courts are replacing the fledgeling district court structure.

Karzai's robed appearance is an essential part of this strategy, as if Afghans have never before seen a man in a suit or a lady in a skirt. That too is part of the Great Game.

Bob's World

Sun, 04/04/2010 - 12:22am

One of the great ironies I see is that Western leaders focus on the largely tertiary issues of "corruption" and "election fraud"; when the degree of both of these currently are both tremendously enabled and expanded by two things that the West helped create:

1. A Centralized Government that elevated all power, favors, and cash to the very top to sprinkle back down to the populace; where as before it elevated to the provincial and district level and sprinkled down. This has created a Ponzi effect that enriches the select few and leaves the people with little.

2. An Afghan Constitution that give the President the power to select all of the key ministers at the top, as well as all of the key leaders down at the distict and province. All know that so long as the one who selected them stays in office and so long as they make their payments on time, they stay in office; but if Karzai gets elected out or they don't make their monthly payments, they are out too.

Bad systems enable bad governance. The West helped shape and create a very bad system, then when that very bad system performs exactly as one would expect it to in this culture (or any other for that matter), the West acts all high and mighty and throws public insults at those fortunate enough to be in the system. Public insults are not best tact here.

So, one must expect every election to be rigged in this structure; and one must expect high degrees and high levels of corruption as well. They system and the culture make anything else virtually impossible.

So the only hope for creating some form of legitimacy, no matter how fragile, is to do it through historic Afghan structures of the Shuras and Jirgas being conducted now and not through more Western style elections. If opposing voices the West hates and fears are not in those sessions, they will not be legitimate. If we control the participants of the Jirgas it is exactly the same as Karzai controlling the results of the election. Manipulation = Illigitimacy.

Karzai must distance himself from the West and reach out to opponents. Many of those opponents are also looking for a good excuse to distance themselves from their masters in Pakistan as well.

I don't know how this ends; but there are tremendous opportunities for the West here if we play it smart. If we try to over control the process though, we could well doom ourselves to additional years of mucking away at the bottom end of an insurgency that can probably only be one by engaging at the top; or a nationally embarrassing pull-out that could weaken the U.S globally by lessening national influence and credibility with competitors everywhere, friend and foe alike.

The players and rules may have changed, but it is still a "Great Game" in Afghanistan.

Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Sat, 04/03/2010 - 4:34pm

Karzai is in fact overplaying his cards as he is positioning himself for the day of reckoning with the Taliban who he knows long or short will eventually control Afghanistan.

He has not even come close to stifling the corruption or reigning in the warlords, or drug king-pins as he is making too much money off of them and vice versa.

IE let's look at Kandahar where both the Taliban control the city as well as Karzai's family controls the city ---do we really think we can "protect" the city population in that mix?

Look at the latest NYTs article on just how quickly the Taliban have to a large degree "isolated" the Marine's recent "successes.

If he "really feels" the US/NATO were the defrauders of his "recent clean election win"---then challenge him to put up or shut up as it is if I remember our dead and wounded plus what 300B USDs that have been invested through him and we are no closer to leaving that country.

Nothing is wrong in calling a spad a spad if in fact your "friend" is in it for the long haul---just do not think that Karzai figures there is a way to defeat the Taliban and is jockening for a good bargaining position.

Bob's World

Sat, 04/03/2010 - 9:16am

The author states that the US wishes to create a "stable, democratic state" in Afghanistan. I agree. But I disagree completely with the Author's analysis of these recent events.

In order for Karzai to have any prayer of establishing a "stable" state, he must resolve the insurgency; and to resolve the insurgency he must establish the Legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan in the eyes of his populace at a minimum. Karzai is right, he can't do that if he is perceived to be a stooge of the West. He needs distance. Such statements, his visits with China and Iran, his talks with opposition/insurgent leaders, his coming Peace Jirga, all trend toward establishing the number one thing he must have to end the insurgency: Legitimacy.

That said, he also is creating so much separation, in such a way that he also provides Mr. Obama what he needs: An Exit Strategy.

So, as a guy who focuses a lot of energy in attempting to understand insurgency at the strategic level; I really don't see a down side to this, unless of course we play it wrong.

A. Karzai establishes legitimacy, and comes out of his Peace Jirga with meaningful roles for opposition leaders in the government of Afghanistan. This takes the top off of the insurgency, allowing the Coalition to downsize, which takes the gas out of the resistance insurgency that we're dealing with on the ground.

B. The Peace Jirga is a flop, the U.S. proclaims Karzai to an ingrateful host, and we obilige him by packing our bags and going home; with the caveat that we withhold the right to return for episodic strategic raids if Afghanistan at any time under this management or the next, opts to get back into the terrorist training camp business.

This is highstakes poker at it's best. Karzai just raised with Duce-Trey showing. Either he has great hole cards and knows how to play them, or he's about to go bust. Will he back off, or go all in? We'll know soon.