Karzai Unhinged?

The concerns about Afghanistan's volatile president are legitimate, but allies shouldn't lose sight of the big picture.

During my recent visit to Afghanistan, I got the chance to meet with military officers, mullahs, and senior government ministers, as well as journalists, NGO activists, parliamentarians, provincial governors, tribal leaders, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai himself. The figures represented a wide range of views, but there's one thing virtually all agreed on: The sudden deterioration of relations between the United States and Karzai could not have come at a worse time.

Right now, the Afghan government is having trouble, simply put, governing. Nothing illustrates this more than the government's inability to control the violence that has rocked the capital, especially over the last nine months. The economy is shaky as well. Prices have been skyrocketing in Kabul. According to local real estate agents, home prices in some parts of the city have risen 75 percent in the past year.

Wealthy Afghans, including warlords and those earning money from defense contractors and construction and security firms, have prospered. Nearly everyone else seems to live in abject poverty. "Welcome to Afghanistan," one imam with very moderate social views told me. "Welcome to the poorest, most oppressed country in the world."

Which quickly gets us to the "c-word" and Karzai. According to Transparency International, the country is one of the most corrupt places on the planet, in a league with Somalia and worse than Haiti. The inability to make progress on the issue is the ostensible reason why the exchange between Karzai and U.S. President Barack Obama in Kabul at the end of March was so tense: 25 minutes, no photos, no news conference. Karzai's allies remain convinced that Washington wants regime change in Kabul and that the corruption issue is being used to delegitimize the current government.

Meanwhile, one opposition parliamentarian who attended a meeting with Karzai this week told me the president has "gone crazy." Karzai's recent accusations that the United States and the international community are to blame for fraud in last year's election stunned most people here. His comments that his government is on the verge of being seen as a "puppet government" and that the Taliban might even soon be seen as legitimate "national resistance" have been widely derided. His rival in the last election, Abdullah Abdullah, has accused him of "national treason." But scratch the surface, and you quickly encounter stark differences in narratives between the U.S. and Afghan sides.

Yes, corruption is an issue for Afghans. It damages the credibility of the government in the eyes of its own people. Some argue that it plays into the hands of Taliban leaders who tell people, "Support us and we'll give what Afghanistan's Western-backed government cannot provide: justice and security." But there's also concern here that Afghan corruption has become an unhealthy obsession in Western capitals, accompanied by unrealistic expectations that distract from the most immediate concern: defeating the insurgents. Most Afghans continue to believe, what's more, that the insurgency is in large measure financed, trained, and directed from Pakistan. It's popular to talk about a proxy war between Pakistan and its rival India on Afghan soil.

One senior official, noting the recent arrest of a Pakistani military officer inside Afghanistan, told me it's hard to believe that this fellow and his masters from Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency -- which has supported the Taliban in the past -- are motivated by concerns over poverty and corruption in Afghanistan. One tribal leader laughed when I asked about the Taliban winning hearts and minds. "They cut off hands and limbs and used to execute women in soccer stadiums," he said.

Everyone concedes that no one -- save the Taliban, sadly -- profits from a spiraling blame game. And the game continues. Yasin Osmani, a senior Karzai official, told the Afghan senate this week that foreigners are involved in 80 percent of the corruption associated with international economic assistance and reconstruction work. One well-connected observer told me Karzai was simply fed up with being lectured, not just by the United States, but by each and every U.N. official and European parliamentarian who turns up in Kabul.

This leads to the question of how to manage the relationship psychologically. Karzai discussed this very issue during our meeting. "A country with centuries of history, of cultural complexity, and a downtrodden economy that has been ravaged by war wants to feel respected," he told me. This may seem like misdirection to his critics, but it strikes a chord with many Afghans. I've heard repeatedly that the United States was over-the-top arrogant to inform Karzai of Obama's visit just before the U.S. president landed in Kabul. The problem is, it's not true. The Afghan side was informed several days in advance. But the larger point is clear: Trust on both sides is badly damaged.

Given what the country has gone through over the last 30 years, it's a miracle that everyone I've met here still wants foreign troops -- led by the United States and its allies -- to stay. Even if some tribal leaders have their suspicions, there's widespread acknowledgment in Kabul that premature withdrawal will collapse the progress that has been made and facilitate the Taliban's return to power. One religious leader old me, "Pursue your interests; I only ask that Americans are honest and care for the Afghan people, too."

There's also the danger of losing perspective. "It's amazing what has been accomplished since 2001," Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul told me. "Nine years ago there was nothing here. Allies should listen to us, see what we've built."

Interior Minister Hanif Atmar agreed. "Our political world has been transformed," he said. "The Afghan people are being empowered to make decisions."

Human rights activist Sima Samar, said to have been runner-up for last year's Nobel Peace Prize, pointed out that while Afghans today debate police corruption, there were no functioning police in the country before the U.S. invasion. The quality of education you can dispute, she told me, "but girls go to school now. It's an enormous step forward."

At Kabul University I came across a group of young students, male and female, sitting together and conversing on a lawn that was a minefield until a few years ago. The young women come from Ghor province in the northwest. It was the first time women from their village had come to Kabul for university education. Before I arrived, the men had been trying to help the women find suitable housing. A far cry from Taliban times.

Yes, Karzai is volatile. His recent outbursts are reckless. There's frustration with him on the Afghan side, too. But maybe it's time for allies to take a breath. One tribal leader told me he couldn't care less about all the chatter about Karzai. "We understand why the United States came here." It would be "a global shame if the Americans lost the big picture and left before finishing what they set out to accomplish."

Sean Gallup/Getty Images


Curing Afghanistan

Two officers on the battlefield offer a new metaphor for the understanding conflict in the region -- and how to end it.

The battle for Marja in southern Afghanistan and the coming campaign in Kandahar are important, but victory on these battlefields will not win the war, though they will help set the conditions for success. It will take a comprehensive, holistic effort to bring stability to Afghanistan.

Drawing on our experience as institution builders, and after spending six months on the ground in Afghanistan, we would like to offer a different way to think about diagnosing this country's ills -- and finding the appropriate cures. In the course of our duties, we have helped build the Afghan army, police, air corps, educational institutions, military hospitals, logistics, and the bureaucracies of defense and interior. Rather than describing Afghanistan with the language of war and battles, we have come to think of the country as an ailing patient -- in many ways analogous to a weakened person under attack by an aggressive infection.

To extend this analogy further, to rebuild the country's long-term health, Afghan and coalition leaders must address the ailment at three levels: curing the body, mind, and spirit of the nation. This means rebuilding the body of physical infrastructure and physical security; restoring the mind of governmental and educational institutions; and reinvigorating the spirit of civil leadership and traditional, tolerant Islam.


This diagnosis of Afghanistan's illnesses came too late, allowing the infection that has debilitated it -- i.e., insurgent forces and the Taliban -- to grow in strength. As a result, a low-level antibiotic is now insufficient to the task of restoring health. For several years, coalition and Afghan senior leaders did not fully appreciate the potential lethality of the Taliban's infectious insurgency.

The 30,000 additional troops approved by U.S. President Barack Obama in December 2009 can be viewed as a late but powerful and much-needed dose of antibiotics. The surge was designed to shock and stunt the insurgency, thereby gaining time and space to allow the country's indigenous immune system to be restored.

NATO's combat presence in Afghanistan is considerable. At its peak, combat troops will number nearly 130,000. NATO countries provide the conventional combat troops distributed across the country by region, with especially heavy concentrations in the south, where the Taliban infection is particularly virulent. These troops are augmented by special operations forces and complete coalition air dominance through both manned and unmanned armed platforms.

To be sure, similar to a powerful antibiotic, the use of large numbers of combat troops brings with it side effects that can cause discomfort and pain to the body politic of Afghanistan. The effects range from disruption of civilian day-to-day life to, regrettably, sometimes civilian casualties. Senior NATO commanders seek to minimize civilian casualties and thus apply combat power with restraint and, to the extent possible, surgical precision.

This surge of combat power, along with the Marja and Kandahar offensives, will suppress the Taliban infection in the near term, but is only a temporary reprieve. The current high level of U.S. and NATO combat power cannot be maintained forever. Therefore, without a rejuvenated immune system, the infection will come back.

Immune System

The Afghan equivalent of the body's immune system is the collective security forces: the police, the military, and the security bureaucracy. But the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are underdeveloped and need time and space to develop to a point where they can effectively shoulder the responsibility of suppressing nascent infections that threaten the country's health.

Some have asked: How could the ANSF still require growth and development almost nine years after international forces entered the country? Like a doctor who fails to correctly diagnose an illness, so did security experts fail to appreciate the danger of the Taliban. Moreover, the coalition did not fully appreciate the magnitude of the task entailed in building an indigenous immune system comprised of a large and robust army and police. NATO officials now recognize the size of the task, and the immunity-building effort has, accordingly, expanded dramatically.

In November 2009, the NATO alliance stood up a dedicated training command with the mission of building the ANSF. NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan is responsible for the generation, development, and professionalization of the Afghan army, police, army air corps, and all the various supporting structures, from back-office support systems to military schools. The financial resources devoted to this training mission are among the largest of its kind in the world.

But it isn't just dollars flowing into the country: Trainers, instructors, advisors, engineers, and logisticians are flowing in rapidly and will peak at several thousand. Training facilities and infrastructure include basic-training camps in every regional command, logistical infrastructure, new military hospitals and clinics, and a national military academy modeled after U.S. military academies. The output of these camps and schools is rapidly climbing, producing almost 10,000 police and soldiers per month.

Spirit of Service

Although we have made massive investments in the surge and are moving aggressively to restore Afghan immunity, efforts to restore general health are lagging. The rebuilding of critical infrastructure, the restoration of good governance, and expanded education will be essential to restoring the body and mind.

Restoring the spirit of Afghanistan is perhaps the most difficult and complex. The challenges are twofold: the restoration of Afghanistan's tradition of tolerant Islam and the restoration of a sense of service to nation and tribe that predated the rise of warlordism and its associated corruption.

Fortunately, Afghan leaders today realize that a spirit of national service was lost for a generation and are taking steps to fill the void. At a conference at Camp Eggers in Kabul, sponsored by NATO Training Mission in early 2010, we listened as senior Afghan leaders vigorously debated how to restore a sense of service and virtuous leadership. For all the recent turmoil in the U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Kabul government has kept its word: establishing new officer training schools for police; implementing a lottery system for officer assignments (as a counter to favoritism and nepotism); and developing new laws (now awaiting final approval by the Afghan parliament and president), which seem likely to pass, that together will strengthen the professionalism of the security forces. At the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, one can already see the new spirit of national service and selfless leadership becoming manifest in young men and women.

The road to a healthy body politic is not easy, but the first step is appreciating what a lasting cure will require.