How do you solve a problem like Hamid Karzai? According to his former counterpart at ISAF command, Gen. John Allen, and other pundits, the answer is simple: Ignore him. After all, Allen and others have reasoned, there is no need for the United States to add injury to Karzai's insults by playing into the drama surrounding his refusal to sign a security agreement that would keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan through 2024. While this might be good advice for dealing with an unruly guest at the dinner table, it is probably not the best counsel when making a multi-billion dollar deal with an inveterate gambler-cum-head-of-state with a proven penchant for betting the farm on a pair of deuces.
Many things can and will be said about Afghanistan's president when he finally steps down. Some will say he was crazy, like a fox. Others will say he was a vainglorious old man obsessed with his legacy. Few will extol his poker playing skills. What is important to understand is that after 12 years as head of state, the last thing Karzai wants is to be viewed as a washed-out-has-been with no cards left to play. Only time will tell, however, whether he has aptly chosen the right moment to leverage the deal over a continued U.S.-NATO presence to his own personal benefit. To judge whether matching Karzai's brinksmanship with more brinksmanship is the right course of action, the White House would do well to evaluate the spread, assess who is bluffing whom, and decide whether the stakes are worthwhile.
The release of key Taliban members from the U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay tops the list of call options Karzai has placed on the table. Control of senior Taliban prisoners has been at the center of Karzai's negotiating strategy for years. The only problem is that he hasn't been able to reap many benefits from this approach since Congress and the Pentagon have shown reluctance to play along. Last week, however, on the very same day that Karzai announced he was digging in his heals on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and upping the ante, the Senate, in a little noted move, opted to loosen the stringent rules governing the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to detention facilities in either their home or third-party countries. The move may face tough resistance in the Republican-held House of Representatives, but, as demonstrated by the recent visit of the Department of Defense's special envoy, Paul Lewis, to the island prison, there can be no mistake that a thawing is underway.
Karzai may be right to add these important signals in his "plus" column, but there is no assurance that his timely pronouncements on Guantanamo and chest beating over the U.S. security deal will win him much. Along with the prisoner release demand, Karzai has also pressed for the United States to get serious about restarting negotiations with the Taliban. This presumably means making sure that the Taliban understand that doing business in Kabul and Kandahar will mean doing business with the Karzai clan. The trouble is that the Karzai clan will not likely count for much if it can't deliver the elections to its chosen successor.
Indeed, the Afghan president's greatest fear must be that the clock is running out on his ability to impact the endgame. So he has fallen back on the tried and true approach of injecting uncertainty into the mix, which we've all seen play out in Afghanistan before.
In 2009, we saw 1.2 million fraudulent votes discarded in the presidential and provincial council elections. In 2010, 1.3 million votes were thrown out due to fraud in parliamentary elections; results were disputed for nearly a year before both chambers were finally seated in 2011. In both instances, uncertainty about the timing of the elections exacerbated structural flaws in the political system that remain unresolved. Not surprisingly, Karzai has apparently pressed the head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to postpone the April 2014 polls, a move that would force the White House to rethink its plan to leave 8,000 to 12,000 coalition forces in place as part of an advisory mission.
Karzai knows this well, of course, and so do those in his inner circle who are hoping to benefit from promoting a course of mercurial high-risk gambling. Key among the advocates of this strategy is, reportedly, Abdul Karim Khurram, Karzai's chief of staff and a stalwart member of the conservative wing of the Hezb-i Islami party. Khurram, a confederate of Hezb-i Islami warlord extraordinaire and former Afghan prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has earned a reputation for being bloody-minded when it comes to dealings with Americans.
But it is not entirely clear that this time around his interest aligns with Karzai's. Where Karzai is looking to insulate himself from the inevitable blowback that will occur once his principal backers in Washington reduce their investment in the Karzai brand come 2014, those allied with hardcore conservatives like Hekmatyar are looking to blow the whole game up. Amid all the drama this week over the BSA, Hekmatyar went so far as to write a letter to Karzai, threatening to rescind the informal ceasefires that have been in place for the last year or so if Karzai signs the deal. Hekmatyar knows as well as any other of the irreconcilables, like Mullah Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, that a sustained U.S. presence in Afghanistan means there is no coming home for them anytime soon. From where Karzai is sitting, these facts considerably increase his bargaining power with Hezb-i Islami and the Taliban.
So is there any "getting to yes" with Karzai on signing the security deal? Probably, but it's not certain that "yes" will mean much. History suggests that the deal the Obama administration cuts with Karzai today may not necessarily hold with his succesors tomorrow. Under the current political dispensation, it is unlikely that the Afghan government will be both willing and able to deliver any time soon on a strategy that calls for the country's beleaguered security forces to secure its borders and contain the insurgency. Although the Afghan National Security Forces have shown marked improvement, they have sustained heavy casualties in the face of the continued resurgence of the Taliban. They also have been heavily impacted by a spike in political factionalism within the upper echelons of the security sector.
Proposals to extend the U.S. military presence beyond 2014 additionally present a troublesome paradox: as long as U.S. forces remain, so too must the parallel legal infrastructure that has grown up around aggressive U.S. counterterrorism operations that have become anathema to many Afghans. The lack of trust between U.S. and Afghan partners over civilian casualties and night raids does not improve prospects much. The continued threat of insider attacks will also place an undue burden on U.S. military leaders to maintain unrealistic force protection measures regardless of whether Western force levels are at 10,000 or 1,000 after 2014. The latter point is all the more salient given Pakistan's apparent unwillingness to abandon its support for the Afghan insurgency. Any expectations that U.S. strategy in the region will profit greatly from a further investment of military assistance should be lowered accordingly.
Washington's post-2014 options are deeply constrained by these rather bitter facts, but it doesn't mean that the "zero option" is the only option. An investment in Afghanistan's stability needs to be an investment in the Afghan people, first and foremost. This means focusing hard on supporting a fair election process, ensuring that the economy remains stable, that rule of law and education programming continues to receive international support, and that women's rights and better health care remain high on the international aid agenda. Washington also needs to focus more on arriving at a political settlement that will hold. Boots on the ground, even in limited numbers, may be an important part of that signaling strategy in the short-term. But if the fraught political gamesmanship that has marked Karzai's tenure isn't brought under control within the next few months, it will be hard to ignore the unruly guest at the dinner table for much longer. The White House should send a strong signal to that it is still serious about a strategy that envisions an Afghanistan that can eventually stand on its own. A post-2014 U.S. strategy that maintains the status quo of insecurity and instability is hardly worth betting 10,000 American lives on and risks seeing the country held hostage to the caprices of ambivalent Afghan leaders for yet another decade.
If the short-term goal is to keep some troops in theater, then the long-term goal must be to leverage continued American assistance to influence the course of a negotiated political settlement that engages both armed and unarmed factions in the Afghan opposition, and to resolve longstanding frictions with Pakistan over military incursions and trade disputes across the Durand line, the disputed border between the two countries. This may mean that Washington and the rest of the international community will have to get creative in seeking solutions to current and future impasses over a continued Western presence in Afghanistan. Throwing money and military resources willy-nilly at the problem of widespread political disenfranchisement in Afghanistan will not bring greater security to the country or its region.
Instead of simply ignoring Karzai, there are a few ways that Washington can signal its seriousness about a responsible drawdown in Afghanistan. The first would be to publicly back the appointment of a U.N. special envoy and negotiating team to facilitate a regional settlement. A second way would be for the United States to engage regional powers, like China, India, Iran, Russia, and Central Asian states, on the possibility of encouraging Pakistan and Afghanistan to agree to refer the bloody, costly, and divisive dispute over the Durand line to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The sooner Washington and its international partners acknowledge the longstanding hostilities between the two countries as the center of gravity in a conflict, the better. Shifting the focus from boots on the ground to building momentum for a negotiated settlement may also mean taking more practical steps to resolve the status of high-level detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in the near term, as Karzai has repeatedly suggested. All of these recommendations may seem distasteful to a war-weary White House fed up with Karzai's antics. But the sooner the Obama administration acknowledges that the conflict in Afghanistan is desperately in need of a negotiated end, the less need there will be to bet billions on propping up compulsive gamblers in Kabul.
Candace Rondeaux is a non-resident research fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School. She lived in Kabul from 2008 to 2013, working first as the South Asia bureau chief for the Washington Post, and most recently as the senior analyst in Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group. She is writing a political history of the Afghan security forces and is currently undertaking a mid-career masters at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
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