Small Wars

This Week at War: It's Karzai's Show Now

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Note to the White House: You don't own Karzai -- he owns you

In the March 26 edition of this column, I warned that bargaining with the Taliban for a settlement in Afghanistan would open a fissure between Afghan and U.S. interests. But it should be clear that such a new fissure would join others that are already cracking up U.S.-Afghan relations. What the Obama team needs to determine is whether it can achieve its objectives in Afghanistan while its relations with President Hamid Karzai crumble.

On March 29, the New York Times described another crack in the foundation. According to the story, an angry Karzai, after having been de-invited to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House, invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul to deliver an anti-American speech at the presidential palace. Ahmadinejad's speech occurred while Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting U.S. troops in the country.

The piece went on to discuss a lunch meeting at his palace during which Karzai declared that "the Americans are in Afghanistan because they want to dominate his country and the region." According to the article, Karzai asserted that he could reach a settlement with the Taliban but that U.S. officials are preventing that in order to prolong the war and their military presence in the region.

It is expected that Karzai, like any leaders in his position, would wish to demonstrate to his compatriots that he is not a mere crony of a foreign power. But Karzai wasn't shy about delivering a similar message in a November 2009 interview with PBS's Newshour, whose audience includes the Washington establishment: "[T]he West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan. It is here to fight the war on terror.... We were being killed by al Qaeda and the terrorists before Sept. 11 for years, tortured and killed; our villages were destroyed, and we were living a miserable life. The West didn't care nor did they ever come." It appears as if the Obama team should not count on receiving any gratitude from Karzai.

How can Karzai, the leader of an incredibly poor and dependent country, get away with antagonizing the U.S. government? He realized, perhaps before U.S. policymakers did, that the heightened U.S. commitment of prestige in Afghanistan means that the United States no longer has the option of either redefining its mission in a way that would exclude Karzai or of withholding large-scale support for Afghanistan's institutions. With escalation, the U.S. government became dependent on Karzai and not vice versa.

What U.S. policymakers now need to contemplate is whether they can achieve their goals in Afghanistan while relations with Karzai and the government in Kabul deteriorate. The White House needs the American public, not to mention its soldiers, to believe in the Afghan mission. Publicly quarreling with and disparaging Karzai and his government can quickly shatter that belief. Similarly, Karzai's open distrust of America's motives is no doubt a boost to the Taliban's recruiting.

U.S. officials think they have valid complaints about the performance of Karzai and his government. It must seem paradoxical to many of those officials that their leverage over Karzai declined with each increment of U.S. escalation. They'd better quickly accept that paradox if they wish to avoid a debacle.

The Afghan campaign is now about reputation, not terrorism

The March 29 suicide bombings on Moscow's subway system, which killed 39 and injured more than 70, have left Russians wondering what their government will do in response. On April 1, President Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Dagestan with a five-point plan that promised a mixture of "sharp dagger blows," economic development, and the promotion of "morality and spiritual growth" in the North Caucasus region. After nearly two decades of various military campaigns in the region, Russia has pacified Chechnya and the North Caucasus as much as it ever will. But the terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere show the limitations of the Chechen operations as exercises in counterterrorism. Russia's brutal military campaigns in Chechnya may have done little to protect Russia from terrorism. Nonetheless, the wars demonstrated Russia's willingness to forcefully defend its sovereignty, something it no doubt believed was a useful lesson for others to observe.

We can say the same about the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. As U.S. military forces press on with their campaign -- next stop, Kandahar -- police at home have had to deal with the likes of Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hasan, attempted airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Najibullah Zazi who recently pleaded guilty to plotting to attack the New York City subway system. None of these plots received material support from Afghanistan's badlands. Similarly, even with the campaign in Afghanistan, thousands of police officers in the United States are still required to attend training on identifying and dismantling improvised explosive devices made from common household products. The 9/11 attacks had a connection (along with other places) to Afghanistan. The next terrorist attack on the United States very likely won't -- which may cause many to wonder why Afghanistan is getting so much costly attention.

If the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan isn't really protecting the U.S. homeland from terrorism, what is its purpose? On March 28, President Barack Obama made a quick visit to Afghanistan, where he reminded soldiers that the U.S. mission there is "to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies.... We're going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We're going to reverse the Taliban's momentum. We're going to strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces and the Afghan government so that they can begin taking responsibility and gain confidence of the Afghan people."

Left unsaid is to what measurable standard or duration the U.S. government is to achieve those goals. Ultimately, Obama will attempt to make those judgments. But his answers have to be believed by not only the American public but by much of the rest of the world.

In this sense, the United States is fighting in Afghanistan not against terrorism but for its reputation, for its ability to convince the wider world that it is in control of its affairs and that its power can achieve challenging goals. But this means that the world audience, and not the U.S. president, will decide for itself whether it is convinced about the efficacy of American power.

As it did with the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, the world audience will decide whether the United States won or lost its war. That audience, and not Obama, will set the benchmarks for success, which the United States will be obliged to meet.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Is it Time to Cut a Deal in Afghanistan?

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Bargaining in Afghanistan will open up new fissures

The New York Times reported on March 22 that Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with a delegation representing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of one of the three main insurgent groups fighting against the government and international military forces in the country. According to the Washington Post, Hekmatyar's opening bid was a 15-point plan calling for the withdrawal of foreign military forces over the course of six months beginning in July, the appointment of an interim council to govern the country, a new constitution, and new national and local elections.

Before the arrival of Hekmatyar's delegation, Karzai scheduled a peace conference for late April, which he hopes a broader range of insurgent groups, factions in parliament, and civil society organizations will attend.

One should not make too much of these developments. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's August 2009 assessment of Afghanistan rated Hekmatyar's force as the weakest of the three groups he is fighting. McChrystal also concluded that Hekmatyar has no geographical objectives and is just hoping to bargain for a role in a future Taliban government.

However, some bargaining process, even if notional, has likely begun. The various actors onstage in Afghanistan -- Karzai and his allies, the various insurgent factions, elements of Pakistan's government, and the U.S. government -- will each make their own assessment of what could constitute an acceptable deal and whether continued fighting will get them closer or further away from their goals.

The U.S. "surge" of reinforcements is designed to increase the coalition's bargaining leverage. Neither Karzai nor U.S. President Barack Obama's team will see much reason to scale back their current objectives until this autumn when the results of the summer fighting season are in. Coalition leaders are hoping that continued attrition of Taliban leaders, both from ground combat and from drone strikes, might compel some of those leaders to seek a truce. From the Taliban's perspective, each summer's escalation of combat brings a new opportunity to apply political pain on electorates in Europe and North America. The Taliban's dominant factions -- the Quetta Shura led by Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Haqqani network -- will likely also wait to see whether this summer's combat might drive some less-committed coalition members out of the fight.

Although battlefield results should influence bargaining strategies, such logic might not apply in this case. For Afghan players like Karzai and the Taliban, there may be no incentive to settle no matter how much pressure they might come under. They understand that truces are likely to be broken; here the calculation switches to who can gain an advantage rearming during any lull in the fighting. 

Of course, U.S. policymakers will not see it that way. As in Vietnam in 1973, the United States will see a truce as an opportunity to declare victory. The weak South Vietnamese government saw the need to keep fighting no matter how badly its position deteriorated. It correctly judged any truce to be neither credible nor enforceable.

For now, Karzai and the Americans fight the Taliban. But as the bargaining process develops, the next struggle will be between Karzai and the Obama team.

Killer drones: our friends today, our worst fear tomorrow

On March 21, the Washington Post ran a profile of Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The article began with an anecdote that revealed an unexpected ruthlessness in the former congressman from Monterey, Calif.: A CIA Predator drone flying over Pakistan spotted terrorist suspect Baitullah Mehsud on the roof of a house, accompanied by his wife. Panetta ordered a missile strike that killed them both.

According to the article, since the beginning of 2009, CIA drones over Pakistan have killed 666 suspected terrorists and as many as 177 noncombatants (the CIA claims a lower figure). This drone killing rate is a marked acceleration from the George W. Bush years. This acceleration is partially explained by both the greater number of drones available for hunting and increased cooperation from Pakistan in identifying targets.But the stepped-up drone campaign also required the will of Obama and Panetta to aggressively employ the tactic.

The Obama administration's unforgiving employment of hunter-killer robots over Pakistan is a conspicuous change from the ambivalence Panetta observed during his tour as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff. In his book Ghost Wars, Steve Coll describes how the Clinton White House agonized over what actions were permissible for dealing with Osama bin Laden. That vacillation came to haunt Clinton's legacy. Perhaps Panetta now wants to make sure that no one gets away again.

Are there any legal or geographic limits on the CIA's authority to observe and strike? The CIA claims that the program is legal but does not elaborate. Kenneth Anderson, a law professor at American University and a supporter of drones as a counterterrorism tool, warns that the U.S. government needs to explain its legal reasoning before lawsuits or even international arrest warrants threaten the government's authority. Specifically, if it is legal for the CIA to employ Predator drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, what about remote reaches of Asia, Africa, Latin America, or the high seas? Can the United States shoot at any sorts of criminal suspects and not just al Qaeda suspects or their allies? What if the target is a U.S. citizen? Why is it legal for drones with missiles to do what an overseas FBI agent with a pistol cannot? Does any suspect deemed "too difficult to apprehend" become legally eligible for a Hellfire missile instead?

Finally, Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution reminds us that the U.S. monopoly on lethal drones might end very soon. According to Singer, the technology is surprisingly cheap and accessible. Defending against drone attacks might soon become an overwhelming concern, not only for deployed U.S. military forces, but for military forces in garrison bases, which may be even more vulnerable than troops in the field. Then there is the problem of protecting U.S. political leaders from assassination by drone. One more worry to keep the Secret Service awake at night.