Obama and Karzai Need a Reset

Obama and Karzai Need a Reset

The Taliban is gaining ground. Obama must make his move before Afghanistan is lost for good.

Afghanistan has suffered a string of significant assassinations over the past two months. The first was Gen. Mohammed Daud Daud, the commander of interior ministry forces in northern Afghanistan. Next was Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother and chairman of the Kandahar provincial council—a title largely incidental to his status as the most powerful man in the region. Days later, Jan Mohammad Khan—the former governor of Uruzgan province and a close friend and ally of President Karzai—was killed by gunmen at his home in Kabul. And this past Wednesday, a suicide bomber murdered Kandahar mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi.

There have been many attempted assassinations against key figures such as Governor Mangal of Helmand province. President Karzai himself may have been the target of the turban bomber in Kandahar. The bomber had tried to get into the mosque where a memorial service was being held for the president’s brother, perhaps believing that Karzai would be there. But the president had decided to return to Kabul after the funeral and not to attend the memorial service.

The precise motives and culprits behind these killings are unclear. But the Taliban—which has claimed responsibility—is the prime suspect. By turning to assassinations, the Taliban is likely adapting to the progress that the surge of U.S. and Afghan forces has achieved over the past two years. Since President Obama deployed additional troops in the south, counterinsurgency operations—backed by growing numbers of capable Afghan forces—have inflicted substantial setbacks against the Taliban. Insurgents face increasing difficulties in engaging U.S. and Afghan forces and in hitting civilian population centers. The Taliban has adjusted with focused attacks on prominent Afghan officials. Targeted killings, according to the United Nations, have risen by more than 100 percent since 2009.

Through the assassinations, the Taliban is likely pursuing two objectives. First, it seeks to reverse security gains in the south by destabilizing the region and the country. Politics throughout the country—but especially in the south—remain personality driven. Political and economic institutions remain weak while a great deal of business occurs via patronage networks. In this context, assassinating key individuals is an effective tactic for the Taliban. It increases the potential for power vacuums, competition and even conflict among regional rivals. To avoid such as an outcome, President Karzai immediately appointed another brother, Shah Wali Karzai, to replace Wali Karzai as leader of his Popalzai tribe. But it is too early to tell if Shah Wali Karzai will be able to prevent a power struggle in the region.

Second, the Taliban hopes to undermine confidence in the Afghan government and in international forces. By assassinating key Karzai allies and government officials, the Taliban demonstrates that it still retains a serious strike capability. At a psychological level, the killings counter the narrative that the surge and the build up of Afghan forces have brought greater security and that the coalition is in a position to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans.

The campaign of assassinations poses an especially significant threat in light of the current political situation in Afghanistan. The Obama administration made serious mistakes in dealing with Karzai during the first year in office. He in turn has reacted in counterproductive ways. At the popular level, the tensions between the two governments have been exacerbated by the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw surge forces at a faster pace than anticipated, even while negotiations on a long-term U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership have stalled. Many Afghans fear that once again the United States will abandon them, much as it did after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Afghan regime faces a number of other challenges. The Afghan people are uncertain about where their government is heading on key issues other than the security transition. The special tribunal to investigate irregularities in last year’s parliamentary elections recently invalidated poll results for several National Assembly seats. The legislative and executive branches are now locked in a stalemate over how to proceed. And the Kabul Bank scandal continues. After a nine-month investigation by the Afghan Central Bank, there is still uncertainty as to whether to prosecute those taking illegal loans and forcing a bailout of the country's largest bank and whether or not the necessary steps will be taken to put the country’s banking system on a sound footing.

On the Pakistan front, Karzai’s latest efforts to improve relations have not yielded success, and Islamabad is persisting in its policy of support for the insurgents and opposition to U.S. and Afghan policies despite its statements to the contrary. Several Afghan officials have pointed to Pakistani complicity in the recent assassinations. Iran also appears to be continuing to support those opposing the United States—perhaps in coordination with Islamabad—without fearing any consequence for itself.

All these factors make for a worrisome situation, one that necessitates adjustment in Afghan and U.S. policies. First, relations between the Obama and Karzai administrations need a reset. This is the key challenge and opportunity for the new American team led by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen. The challenge is to overcome Karzai’s deep distrust of the Obama administration.

Karzai remains convinced that Washington worked against him in the last elections and waged a propaganda campaign against him and his family. He believes that the Obama administration seeks to undermine his government by supporting parallel institutions such as contractors and militias. Karzai also believes that the U.S. has ignored his pleas to curtail certain military tactics and address Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan. These charges are fanned by certain members of his inner circle prone to anti-American conspiracy theories and hostile intelligence services feeding him such information. According to senior Afghan officials, the new U.S. team has gotten off to a good start in its relations with Karzai, and they should be empowered to build on this success and address these issues.

The good news is that Karzai and most Afghan leaders recognize the importance of the U.S. role in Afghanistan. The new American team should focus on building a constructive personal relationship with Karzai. Like it or not, without Karzai’s buy-in, the Obama administration will struggle in advancing its agenda for making progress on security, governance and economic fronts. Crocker and Allen can regain Karzai’s trust by addressing his legitimate grievances. For example, Karzai wants the Afghan government to assume greater responsibility in conducting night raids against Afghans’ homes, arresting Afghan suspects and managing prisons. On Pakistan, Karzai would welcome a joint U.S.-Afghan strategy that escalates pressure while offering Islamabad a reasonable settlement.

Also, the United States should develop joint U.S.-Afghan transition plans to get the most out of future civilian assistance, which is likely to diminish from current levels as Congress comes to terms with budgetary constraints. The key is to prioritize jointly with the Afghan government the resources that are available. It will be important to adjust the way assistance is delivered, relying as much as possible on Afghan mechanisms, with appropriate oversight, that cost much less than do the parallel structures of contractors and NGOs, with their high overhead costs.

All these issues should be discussed as part of negotiations on a long-term strategic partnership. If the talks to reach a strategic agreement take too long, agreement should be pursued on specific topics and areas of mutual concern. The administration should give a mandate to Amb. Crocker and Gen. Allen to pursue both options. Trust between Karzai and Washington is necessary for a successful exploration of negotiations with the Taliban and Pakistan.

To deal with growing impatience of the international community and the increasing uncertainty and confusion among Afghan people as to the future of their country, Karzai can rise to the occasion and restore the world’s confidence the Afghan government by facilitating a thorough, credible and transparent investigation of the Kabul bank scandal and by reaching a settlement between the executive and legislative branches. To restore the confidence of the Afghan people, Afghan leaders and particularly President Karzai need to clarify the country’s direction and unite key Afghan forces behind it. He should facilitate such a development by leading a national movement for reform and development. The United States could incentivize and enable such efforts by supporting civil society groups while improving the capacity of political and economic institutions. Empowering reform movements has a secondary benefit; With Karzai set to depart office in 2014, Washington can begin to lay the groundwork for a successful transition of power.

For now, the Taliban’s shift toward targeted assassinations is a manageable problem. But that could change if the United States and Afghanistan governments fail to undertake significant adjustments. If empowered to reset U.S.-Afghanistan relations and to work on key issues hindering progress, the new American team on the ground can generate positive momentum as the transition to an Afghan-led security and development effort proceeds.