It is hard enough to fight your enemies. War becomes impossible if you have to fight your friends, and President Karzai seems almost determined to make the ISAF and U.S. effort in Afghanistan “mission impossible.” If it isn’t election fraud, it is corruption. If it isn’t corruption, it is power brokering. If it isn’t power brokering, it is putting more constraints on airpower. If it isn’t airpower, it is failing to provide the civilian government support needed for operations like Marjah. If it isn’t Marjah, it is trying to eliminate private security forces without a plan to replace them. And if it isn’t eliminating private security forces, it is trying to halt the tactics that are essential to clearing out the Taliban and providing the Afghan people with enough security to win their trust.
These are not problems we can afford to keep ignoring. Key elements of the Afghan government have become almost as serious a problem as the Taliban, and it is far from clear that we are fighting the same war. For Karzai and those around him, the war now seems a struggle to stay in power and not one to create effective Afghan governance and earn the support of the people.
This opportunism threatens all of the progress now being made on the ground, and the Afghan government’s track record is becoming steadily more grim. If Karzai finds it easier to criticize the United States and ISAF to ease negotiations with insurgents, then so be it. If it means criticizing America and its allies to distract the Afghan people from the failures of the Karzai government, then that is acceptable as well.
The same is true about deadlines. Ever since the President Obama’s original speech about the 2011 deadline, members of the Karzai government have been talking about their fear that this means the United States plans to abandon them. Now, when the President focuses on 2014, it is suddenly too long. Moreover, the same Karzai who talked about the Afghan forces being ready in 2015, is now saying they can already assume much of the responsibility for combat.
This lack of a real partner threatens every part of the current U.S. and ISAF effort. At the tactical level, allied forces have to be able to fight effectively to make a population-centric strategy possible, and to show the American people and the citizens of allied countries that the Taliban can be defeated. As General Petreaus has made clear, the very tactics Karzai has condemned are those that produce the lowest civilian casualties and collateral damage. Unlike earlier raids, they are supported by high-quality intelligence, achieve surprise in many cases, hit the Taliban and other insurgent networks hard, and produce the least fighting in populated areas. They also are absolutely essential if the United States and ISAF are to clear populated areas, have Afghan forces take their place, provide lasting security, and create the conditions where Afghan civil governance and aid workers can begin to win lasting popular confidence and support.
Secretary Clinton put it as politely as a secretary of state must in saying:
We share these concerns . . . we believe that the use of intelligence-driven, precision-targeted operations against high-value insurgents and their networks is a key component of our comprehensive civilian-military operations. And these operations are conducted in full partnership with the Government of Afghanistan. They include Afghan forces on each operation. There is no question that they are having a significant impact on the insurgent leadership and the networks that they operate.
And we remain very sensitive to the concerns, so there have been revisions in the tactical directives that recognize the sensitivity of conducting night operations. But we believe that these operations are in the best interest of the Afghan people, the Afghan Government, and the ISAF troops who are working with their Afghan counterparts to secure the country.
This, however, is only part of the most recent Karzai threat to winning the war. At a more strategic level, the fastest way to destroy the capability of Afghan forces to make a successful transition away from dependence on ISAF training and partnering, and on allied funding, is to place an impossible burden on them years before they are ready. The Afghan forces are having growing success in the field, but ISAF has only begun the more complex-training and force-organization efforts necessary to create a sustainable Afghan Army. Lt. General William Caldwell, the head of the training mission, has recently stated that he is still short some nine hundred specialized trainers that are critical to begin this effort. The paramilitary Afghan Civil Order Police are only at roughly 25 percent of the end strength necessary to cover the country, and efforts to create some thirty thousand local police are just beginning.
Once again, Secretary Clinton is being far too polite in saying:
We think that based on conditions on the ground, we support President Karzai’s stated goal of transitioning responsibility for all security to an Afghan lead by the end of 2014. The pace of transition of security responsibility obviously depends on the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan National Police Forces to be able to take charge. That’s why it’s a conditions-based, gradual transition process, not some one-time event. And we are working closely with our Afghan counterparts and with partners like Lithuania, which not only as I said runs a PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] but is helping to train the Afghan police forces.
At a grand strategic level, Karzai’s actions raise serious questions as to whether we will ever have the kind of partner that offers a hope of lasting victory. The most the United States and other allied powers can do is to provide the Afghan people with the right strategy, the resources to implement it, and a base of reasonable security and stability for the Afghan government to build upon.
America and its allies cannot compensate for an incompetent and corrupt Afghan government, anymore than they can compensate for the same problems in Pakistan. The costs in blood and treasure of winning at the tactical level are only justified if the Afghan government can show that it can be trusted to serve the Afghan people and make a matching effort to both win the fight and create a lasting stable and secure Afghanistan. So far, the Karzai government has fallen dismally short of showing that it is a real partner in either sense. Our problems with Pakistan are bad enough; if Karzai and company keep this up, the war will cease to be worth fighting.