Karzai's Balancing Act

The Afghan president's perorations are motivated by domestic concerns.

Recent weeks have highlighted Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s desire to assert more control over the use of military force by coalition forces in Afghanistan. First Karzai signed a presidential order that prevents Afghan security forces from requesting air support from coalition forces during operations in residential areas. Then the Afghan leader announced that he will ban U.S. special-operations forces from operating in the Maidan Wardak province near Kabul. Karzai even said that the Taliban “want longer presence of foreigners—not their departure from Afghanistan.” These are risky moves, but show that Karzai is driven by internal political concerns.

Both decisions were prompted by what have been cited as significant abuses by international forces and armed Afghan units working independently from the government. Local Afghan officials had repeatedly claimed that civilians were being killed in NATO airstrikes. Karzai finally decided to issue a ban after an airstrike in Kunar province killed 10 civilians.

In the Wardak province, local residents have filed complaints with Karzai’s government claiming that Afghan irregulars working with U.S. special-operations forces were systematically involved in the disappearances and deaths of local villagers (confusion remains as to who exactly is suspected of the alleged abuses, and an inquiry is underway). These reports finally drove Afghanistan’s National Security Council (NSC) to issue the edict against the use of U.S. special-operations units in Wardak. In addition, Karzai has also voiced that he wants to establish control over all Afghan forces.

While the bans might not last forever, the underlying issues are nothing new. For some time Karzai has demanded that coalition forces stop conducting airstrikes and night raids—targeted raids designed to capture or kill suspected insurgents—in residential areas. For Karzai, when collateral damage occurs as a consequence of these operations, it ultimately breeds alienation, as the population equates violence not only with the Taliban, but with the very international forces Karzai’s government allows to operate on Afghan soil. This has created immense distrust between many Afghans, the Karzai government and NATO’s International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF).

The edicts reveal a more forceful Karzai, a leader willing to take control of the use of military force in his country. The moves are meant to strengthen the legitimacy of his government in the Afghan population’s eyes. Thus, this is largely a strategic political move—not a military one—designed to shore up support for the Afghan government in a time of great uncertainty and as the security and political transitions of 2014 loom on the horizon.

An Opening for Insurgents?

But Karzai’s recent political moves will cause an inevitable loss of tactical gains in combatting the insurgent threat. The use of coalition airpower (close air support and drone strikes) by friendly ground forces has allowed them to hit the enemy effectively with low risk to themselves.

U.S. special-operations units have become quite adept at using direct action (night raids) to quickly identify and neutralize terrorist and insurgent targets in Afghanistan. Special operators and intelligence officers use a targeting cycle, perfected during the Iraq War, called F3EA – “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze.” Essentially, special operators find their target, capture or kill the individuals, gather intelligence at the site, and use the information to precisely identify new targets.

These operations usually occur in the form of multiple night raids all throughout the war zone in order to degrade enemy networks quickly—and they work. In strategic provinces, such as the Wardak province, direct action by special-operations forces has kept the Taliban threat to Kabul at bay. And in an effort to train Afghan forces in the uses of direct action, many are accompanying U.S. forces on raids today.

While immensely useful, both tactics have proven to be controversial due to the inevitable mistakes and social disturbances that come with collateral damage, inaccurate targeting and foreigners bursting into Afghan homes at night. The tactics strengthen deep local resentment.

Even when used correctly, the tactics only help accomplish short-term objectives. Referencing the direct-action methods in a Foreign Affairs interview, former ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal reaffirmed this point: “The tactics we developed do work, but they don’t provide decisive effects absent other, complementary activities.”

A Strategic Calculation

Do the political risks outweigh the battlefield gains? For the Afghan government the answer is beginning to look like a yes. Karzai, like President Obama, has to weigh domestic political concerns when making military decisions. But the Karzai government currently does not have a monopoly on the use of force in its country. By making such moves as banning foreign air support, raids in Wardak, unilateral detentions and the presence of private security companies, Karzai will slowly ensure that the Afghan government can wrest control from international forces and other armed groups operating in Afghanistan.

While the decisions are likely to limit military commanders (both ISAF and Afghan) in the field, they are important when balancing long- and short-term goals in the larger strategic picture. After all, the ultimate objective is to have a competent Afghan government that is both capable of providing security and seen as legitimate by the Afghan people.