Five Reasons To Take Hamid Karzai's Latest Rant Seriously
Posted by Michael Cohen
Over at the Swampland Blog, occasional international travel partner, former Brooklyn hipster and all-around good egg Michael Crowley has raised an excellent point about my take on the latest Karzai/Petraeus dust-up:
Though genuinely difficult in all sorts of ways, Karzai has always played something of a two-step, publicly bashing American military tactics in ways that are popular with his people--he called for an end to U.S. air strikes more than a year ago--while privately maintaining good relations with our military leaders.
So it may be that Karzai is playing to his base, so to speak. (The same may be true of his unrealistic demand that all foreign contractors leave the country, under a deadline that he has already extended.) Because I find it hard to believe that the Afghan leader really wants the bulk of America's forces out of his country anytime soon. Protected only by his own government's security forces, Karzai's days would be numbered. For the moment, Karzai needs us as much as we need him.
This is a pretty compelling point - and Crowley might be right here - but I think there are several other factors to consider and this gives me an opportunity to flesh out some of the arguments that I groggily made yesterday.
1) Don't Mess With My Junk . . .
I too find it hard to believe that Karzai wants American troops to leave the country anytime soon; after all I'm sure he's seen the pictures of a murdered Najibullah with his you-know-what no more and would prefer to avoid that fate.
But if you read Karzai's comments closely he's not lobbying for US troops to leave; instead he seems to be suggesting that the large US military footprint - and the newly aggressive US military approach - needs to be reduced. That doesn't seem like an unreasonable argument - and I'm at a complete loss as to why that wouldn't be acceptable to an overwhelming majority of Americans, including the President of the United States. Seriously, the Afghan President wants to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan . . . where do I sign on the dotted line for that one?
2) How Is This Karzai Anti-American Rant Different From All Other Karzai Anti-American Rants?
A few people have raised the point that this is not the first time Karzai has complained about the US military and the death of Afghan civilians from American arms. And the cynical might argue, as Crowley does, that this is nothing more than political posturing. Certainly this might be correct. But here's the crucial difference: this time David Petraeus threw a public hissy fit and leaked to the Washington Post that he would consider resigning if Karzai doesn't fly right.
So sure Karzai might just be playing politics . . . but someone in the US military doesn't see this as business as usual. That seems a bit consequential.
3) Don't Take Away My Toys . . .
As for why Petraeus chose this opportunity to publicly attack Karzai; I haven't the foggiest. But one thought comes to mind. Over the past several weeks the US military has embraced a tactical shift that it once vehemently rejected - the heightened use of kinetic action against Taliban insurgents. As Danger Room noted the other day:
The U.S. and its allies have unleashed a massive air campaign in Afghanistan, launching missiles and bombs from the sky at a rate rarely seen since the war’s earliest days. In October alone, NATO planes fired their weapons on 1,000 separate missions.” These figures represent a 50% increase over the same time period in 2009.
And why is this happening: so that Petraeus can show progress before the NATO summit and the White House's December review. After all, it's not as if that whole hearts and minds thing was working out so well. So Karzai's words are basically a shot across the bow to Petraeus - and a rejection of his shift in tactical emphasis. If Karzai's words gained traction that would be a disaster for Petraeus and would probably ensure that come the July 2011 deadline the military would be unable to point to any real progress being made in Afghanistan.
4) How's That Whole COIN Thing Working Out?
But there's another crucial element to consider here as well; the entire US strategy in Afghanistan is predicated on a counter-insurgency model that relies on host country support from the Afghan government. But here you have the Afghan president saying that he doesn't support the strategy that is nominally being fought in his name. That's a problem; not only in undermining a COIN strategy, but also in undermining the current fetishization of COIN in the US military. Whether Petraeus has intended it or not, his blow-up - as well as Karzai's constant complaints - is an extraordinary indictment of the entire population-centric COIN strategy. I mean if you don't have host country support . . . you don't have a COIN strategy (at least according to the military's own counter-insurgency manual).
5) Things That Make You Go Hmm
Finally, one of Crowley's commenters makes the point that I wish I had made:
It seems that Karzai says something to this effect every couple of months. At what point do you stop saying he's playing to his base and actually means this stuff?
It's an excellent question.
UPDATE: Michael Crowley has reminded me that he lived in Cobble Hill, which is not Brooklyn Heights, but isn't exactly hipster-ville. Also, he has no ironic facial hair and/or eyewear and doesn't own a wallet chain or a porkpie hat. So in retrospect the use of the term hipster is incorrect. I apologize to Michael and all members of his family!