Tag: hamid karzai

Karzai’s Latest Outrageous Comment

Yesterday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai alleged that the United States and the Taliban are “working in concert to convince Afghans that violence will worsen if most foreign troops leave.” His accusation exposes a strange irony. Karzai not only supports U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, but also disparages that presence to evade his own failings. 

Since 2001, senior U.S. officials have tethered our military might to the sick man of Central Asia. In 2004, President George W. Bush pledged America’s “ironclad commitment” to help Karzai’s country succeed. In 2010, President Obama made clear that the U.S. role in Afghanistan “is a long-term partnership.” 

President Karzai codified those pledges last May by concluding the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America. Despite his history of hindering U.S.-backed anti-corruption investigations, denouncing the international community, and claiming the U.S. ferried Taliban to the north in order to spread violence, he eagerly signed an Agreement that commits the U.S. government to Afghanistan’s future. It provided for the possibility of a U.S. troop presence until 2024, and a long-term framework for training Afghan security forces and targeting al Qaeda. 

Washington’s devotion to nation building still holds fast despite Karzai’s inability to fulfill its lofty expectations. As former U.S. ambassador to Kabul Karl W. Eikenberry bluntly warned his superiors in November 2009, Karzai “is not an adequate strategic partner.” 

Certainly, the United States is not blameless for Afghanistan’s downward spiral—it took responsibility back in 2001 to rebuild the war-ravaged country and then shifted its attention and resources in 2003 to invade and occupy Iraq. Yet, the endemically corrupt Karzai regime and its band of thugs and cronies are also culpable. 

Ample reporting on Afghan corruption need not be repeated here. More to the point, Karzai fails to appreciate the way in which his poor governance vindicates insurgent propaganda and drives many Afghans to fight. A widespread perception of the central government’s massive corruption delegitimizes the state and inspires the sense of injustice that makes the Taliban appear as an effective alternative. Apart from Karzai himself, Afghan police are notorious for perpetrating crimes they are supposed to be stopping, such as corruption, theft, kidnapping, murder, and child abuse. Meanwhile, the Afghan army, long hailed as the mission’s shining success story, is rife with factionalism and patronage networks that could splinter the institution along political and ethnic lines. Foreign policy planners in Washington overlooked the second- and third-order consequences of their attempts to build a strong central government that wields a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. 

As the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admitted two years ago, “Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.” (Emphasis mine.] 

Perversely, the corruption of the Afghan central government and the failures of the foreign-led nation-building project feed off one another in disturbing symbiosis. The Washington Post hasreported that foreign military and development spending provide roughly 97 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, fomenting fears that withdrawal will push the Afghan economy into depression. The alternative to popping that foreign aid bubble, some argue, would be to commit several hundred thousand troops and decades of attention, resources, and patience to transform Afghanistan’s deeply divided society into a stable, non-corrupt, electoral democracy. Of course, such success would hardly be guaranteed and assumes we possess the local knowledge as well as the cultural and religious legitimacy to operate indefinitely in a country notoriously suspicious of outsiders and largely devoid of central authority. 

Over twelve years of nation-building has had little success in creating an economically viable Afghan state, much less a self-sustaining Afghan security force. Indeed, nation building has propped up an erratic and unreliable regime whose behavior feeds the insurgency’s momentum. 

Policymakers must reject the flawed premise on which their policies rest. They must overcome their tendency to overestimate the strategic importance of a small, underdeveloped country to the narrower and more achievable goals of disrupting terrorist networks and preserving U.S. national security.

Karzai’s Decree: Get Out!

Just yesterday, after accusing unnamed “armed individuals” of harassing, torturing, and murdering innocent villagers, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai ordered all U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak province, a defensive buffer against insurgents southwest of the capital. Reports on Karzai’s decision have focused on the implications of America’s withdrawal from the “strategically important” province. But U.S. policymakers should leverage the opportunity by rescinding their open-ended commitment to the country and transferring responsibility to the Afghans. 

To be sure, U.S. and coalition forces will face challenges as U.S. combat troops scale back to advisory roles and U.S. Special Forces assert ever greater authority. But as someone close to Karzai commented sourly, Afghan officials are tired of Americans “running roughshod all around our country.” 

For years, there have been reports that CIA-trained Afghan militias operating beyond the control of the Karzai administration have conducted so-called night raids and captured and killed a number of alleged Taliban commanders—“alleged” because information about those operations remains classified. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, Taliban-perpetrated violence in and around the province continues. 

Amid increasing Afghan public anger over foreign misconduct and civilian casualties, the mere suspicion that American commandos condoned such lawless activities (an allegation U.S. officials deny) proved enough to encourage Karzai to expel from Wardak the very foreigners he relies on for his country’s security. As Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said of Karzai’s decision, “local people are blaming the U.S. Special Forces for every incident that is taking place there.” 

That blame-shifting, however warranted, is particularly troublesome, given the reckless behavior of Afghan security forces under U.S. training. BBC reporter Ben Anderson recently documented that Afghan police are also rife with criminality, and show little compunction about firing at enemies when civilians are in the line of fire. Upending the fundamental premise of Washington’s “hearts and minds” strategy, one deputy police commander told Anderson he saw no difference between civilians and the Taliban. 

For these and other reasons far too numerous to mention here, the Afghan government, its police, and armed forces must take full responsibility for the security of their country. Rather than respond with indignation, Washington should take Kabul’s ruling as a blessing. 

Update: A previous version of this post did not include a source for the following passage: “But as someone close to Karzai commented sourly, Afghan officials are tired of Americans ‘running roughshod all around our country.’” The source is the New York Times and the link has been inserted above. 

Obama Floats a Zero Option in Afghanistan

As President Hamid Karzai visits Washington this week, a flood of recent news reports suggest that the White House is considering a zero option that would leave no U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Such news is bittersweet.

It appears that top officials have come to realize that America can protect its vital interests without an indefinite residual troop presence. That said, these officials implicitly acknowledge that conflating the fight against terror groups with the creation of viable central governments has failed. America can and should destroy, incapacitate, and punish those that do it harm; but the American military and civilian establishments have had repeated difficulty repairing failed states emerging from civil conflict.

After 10 years and counting, the fragile Afghan government still lacks a central pillar of nation-state sovereignty: monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Reports suggest that outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta favors leaving 9,000 U.S. troops behind to combat militants and to train the 350,000-large Afghan Army and police. But according to Washington’s own metric, indigenous security forces, which the U.S. has spent $39 billion to train and equip, have to be effective enough to operate independent of foreign assistance. But reports have found that some coalition forces largely see the Afghan National Army (ANA) as unmotivated, highly dependent, and making little to no progress.

Leaving trainers also assumes that Afghan government forces are effective in gaining the Afghan population’s support. But a Pentagon report from last year found little evidence of that. Afghan government corruption remains rampant and continues to bolster insurgent messaging. Sadly, more resources are unlikely to change the fact that the coalition has no overarching or coherent geopolitical framework to connect military gains with a broader political process that would resolve what drives the insurgency. Absent that, rural Afghans in insular pockets of the country will continue to turn to the Taliban alternative.

A plan to end America’s limited presence is a debate we must have. Committing manpower with no decisive end attaches no conditionality on the performance of either Afghan elites or security forces while leaving U.S. troops exposed to insurgent attack. The lesson to draw from the Afghan mission is not to plunge into a country and dwell for ten years, but to avoid similar futile missions in the future. 

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, I discuss the future of Afghanistan and why it is time once again to rethink our mission:

Security Pact Ensures America’s Presence in Afghanistan

President Obama’s arrival in Afghanistan and signing of the strategic partnership agreement with President Karzai supposedly represents yet another corner turned in our nearly eleven year (and counting) war. The commander-in-chief’s arrival in secrecy, under darkness, and without live coverage of the signing is reminiscent of Bush the Younger’s many trips to war-torn Iraq and displays just how bad security is in Afghanistan. Indeed, despite the administration’s talk about drawing-down, the strategic partnership agreement signed today in Kabul extends Washington’s military and financial support to the endemically corrupt Karzai regime well beyond 2014.

The Taliban’s most powerful narrative is that foreigners are occupying Afghanistan and supporting its corrupt centralized government. That is more than mere propaganda. It is reality. Transparency International was correct—save for North Korea and Somalia, Afghanistan is the most corrupt country in the world. The Karzai cartel and its band of thugs and warlords are the embodiment of social injustice. The nation-building mission in Afghanistan is a failure not of democracy promotion, but the result of bringing injustice and crony capitalism to a desperate and war-ravaged people.

As America climbs out of the worst financial crisis in a generation, the American people pour tens of billions a year into a poverty-stricken narco-stateaccording to the late-Richard Holbrooke—while the Karzais and their cronies build mansions in Dubai. The American people’s hard-earned tax dollars are funding Afghanistan’s “1%.” As I said last week about the agreement, it is nation building by another name. The American people have come to realize that the nation-building mission in Afghanistan is a needless waste of blood and treasure and unnecessary for our vital security interests. U.S. officials should recognize this and expedite our withdrawal, rather than continue to tread water in a desperate attempt to stave off disaster.

A senior administration official today warned of repeating the mistake of allowing the Taliban to reemerge in Afghanistan. In the process, however, the United States is repeating a mistake that experts contend helped to contribute to the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001unwavering economic support and political cover to the Muslim world’s most corrupt and illegitimate regimes. Some will argue that America has a moral obligation to prevent the reemergence of reprehensible groups like the Taliban. But America never made a substantive policy shift toward or against the Taliban’s misogynistic, oppressive and militant Islamic regime when it controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s. Thus, the present moral outrage against the group can be interpreted as opportunistic. Sadly, Washington’s current embrace of the kleptocratic Karzai regime not only contradicts the basic moral principles that America purports to impose on the rest of the world, but also does little to advance our security, drives foreigners to commit terrorist acts, and is detrimental to our long-term goal of advancing our country’s most cherished values.

Lessons in Crony Capitalism

From this week’s Washington Post:

Afghanistan’s Central Bank has taken control of the country’s biggest and most politically potent private bank and ordered its chairman to hand over $160 million worth of luxury villas and other real estate purchased in Dubai for well-connected insiders, according to Afghan bankers and officials.

Farther down the page the article continues:

Kabul Bank previously had been shielded by the political clout of its shareholders who, in addition to Mahmoud Karzai [President Hamid Karzai’s brother, who partly owns Kabul Bank], include Haseen Fahim, the brother of Vice President Mohammed Fahim.

If this hostile takeover wasn’t questionable enough, the article goes on to report:

Kabul Bank’s biggest creditor, bank insiders said, is Haseen Fahim, a minority shareholder, who borrowed tens of millions of dollars to fund various business ventures, which in turn won contracts at U.S. bases and sites in Afghanistan operated by the CIA.

So, in an effort to stamp out corruption, which U.S. officials have prodded Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai to do, he orders his Central Bank to take managing control of the country’s largest private bank, which, I might add, “also contributed to President Karzai’s reelection campaign last year.”

At the risk of oversimplifying, the above-cited transaction sounds like a stark lesson in crony capitalism: an allegedly capitalist economy based on close relationships between politically connected business figures and the state. This U.S.-led nation-building charade in Afghanistan sounds eerily reminiscent of the state-controlled corruption surrounding Afghanistan’s mineral mining laws:

“Article 4: Ownership of Minerals

(1) All naturally occurring Minerals and all Artificial Deposits of Minerals on surface or subsurface of the territory of Afghanistan or in its water courses (rivers and streams) are the exclusive property of the State.”

Well, it’s nice to see that we are exporting our system around the world!

Learning From Our Mistakes: Nation-Building Follies and Afghanistan

When the United States first invaded Afghanistan, the objective was clear and direct: defeat al Qaeda and oust the Taliban regime that had given the terrorist organization a safe haven from which to plan the 9-11 attacks.   The mission has since become something very different—and utterly impractical.  U.S. officials now stress the goal of supporting an indigenous political structure that will provide security to the Afghan people and implement good governance (apparently under the enlightened leadership of Hamid Karzai and his corrupt henchmen).  Western military and civilian personnel are involved in everything from setting up schools to drilling wells to building roads.  They may avoid using the term nation–building, but that is clearly what is taking place.

Afghanistan is an extremely unpromising candidate for such a mission, given its pervasive poverty, its fractured clan–based and tribal–based social structure, and its weak national identity. Furthermore, U.S. and NATO officials should be sobered by the disappointing outcomes of other recent nation–building ventures.  The two most prominent missions, Bosnia and Iraq, ought to inoculate Americans against pursuing the same fool’s errand in Afghanistan.

The Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian civil war, but Bosnia is no closer to being a viable country than it was in 1995.  It still lacks a meaningful sense of nationhood or even the basic political cohesion and ethnic reconciliation to be an effective state.  If secession were allowed, the overwhelming majority of Bosnian Serbs would vote to detach their self–governing region (the Republika Srpska) from Bosnia and form an independent country or merge with Serbia.  Most of the remaining Croats—who are already deserting the country in droves—would choose to secede and join with Croatia.  Bosnian Muslims constitute the only faction wishing to maintain Bosnia in its current incarnation.

The economic situation is equally bad.  Indeed, without the financial inputs from international aid agencies and the spending by the swarms of international bureaucrats in the country, there would scarcely be a functioning economy at all.

Although Bosnia is a nation–building fiasco, it eventually may be less of a disaster than Iraq.  Americans who cheered the success of the surge strategy, and now swoon at the prospect of General Petraeus achieving a repeat performance in Afghanistan, were premature in their elation.  Tensions are again simmering, both between Sunnis and Shiite Arabs and between Arabs and Kurds, and there have been numerous violent incidents.  Months after national elections, the political squabbling is so bad that Iraqis have been unable to form a new government.

Moreover, Iraq has already ceased to be a unified state.  Baghdad exercises no meaningful power in the Kurdish region in the north.  Indeed, Iraqi Arabs who enter the territory are treated as foreigners—and not especially welcome foreigners.  Although the Kurds have not proclaimed an independent country, the Kurdistan Regional Government rules a de facto state with its own flag, currency, and army.

None of this bodes well for Iraq’s national unity or even stability going forward.  There are already calls by American pundits to abandon—or at least delay—plans for the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. combat forces, lest the country again erupt into chaos.

Despite a 15–year effort and the expenditure of billions of dollars, the Bosnian nation-building mission is a flop.  Despite a seven–year effort (and counting), the expenditure of at least $800 billion, and the sacrifice of more than 4,300 American lives, the Iraq nation-building mission is, at best, a disappointment  Yet, instead of learning from those experiences, U.S. leaders seem intent on pursuing the same chimera in Afghanistan.

Foreign policy, like domestic politics, is the art of the possible.  Containing and weakening al Qaeda may be possible, but building Afghanistan into a modern, democratic country is not.  The increasingly evident failures of nation–building in Bosnia and Iraq—both of which were more promising candidates than Afghanistan—should have taught us that lesson.

C/P at Big Peace

Hotel Afghanistan: We Can Check Out but Never Leave

The U.S. remains stuck in Iraq, as the country moves toward a potentially messy and not so democratic (lots of disqualified parliamentary candidates, etc.) election.  Iran’s refusal to back away from its nuclear program has intensified calls for an American military strike – which, Sarah Palin assures, would even help the president politically.  North Korea unsurprisingly is showing reluctance to rejoin international talks over its nuclear program: renewed proposals for a U.S. military build-up in South Korea and even war against the North are likely to follow.  And then there is Afghanistan.

Even though President Barack Obama talks about deadlines and drawdowns, there is little in present policy to suggest that the U.S. will be able to leave Afghanistan in even the mid-term.  Afghan President Hamid Karzai certainly doesn’t think so.  He figures on U.S. military support for at least another decade, with continuing international financial support for years after that.

Reports the Associated Press:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned Thursday that foreign troops must stay in his country for another decade, as world powers agreed on an exit map including a plan to persuade Taliban fighters to disarm in exchange for jobs and homes.Divisions emerged between the U.S. and its partners over Kabul’s willingness to offer peace to Taliban leaders who once harbored al-Qaida, instead of the more limited deal for lower-ranking fighters emphasized by the Americans.

All agree that reconciliation means bringing on board what Mark Sedwill, NATO’s newly appointed civilian chief in Afghanistan, called “some pretty unsavory characters.”

The conference was called to help the U.S. and its allies find a way out of the grinding Afghan war amid rising U.S. and NATO casualties and falling public support. NATO has agreed to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces and gradually transfer more combat responsibility to them.

“With regard to training and equipping the Afghan security forces, five to 10 years will be enough,” Karzai told the BBC. “With regard to sustaining them until Afghanistan is financially able to provide for our forces, the time will be extended to 10 to 15 years.”

It sounds a bit like the Afghan equivalent of the Eagles’ Hotel California.  Defeat or bribe the Taliban and keep Karzai in power, and we will have “won” – but we still won’t be able to leave.  And the Afghan government, assuming it achieves a modicum of honest competence, will still have little incentive to meet even President Karzai’s distant check-out date.  Who in Kabul will want to do without abundent Western cash 10 or 15 years from now?

In 2001 the U.S. had a simple, important, and achievable mission in Afghanistan:  disrupt al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban.  American military forces succeeded.  Alas, we’ve spent the succeeding eight years attempting to build a nation state where none exists.  It’s time to draw down our forces and again focus on combatting terrorists.