2011 February 25 Friday
Did Barack Obama Lose Hamid Karzai?

Themes in American foreign policy debates seem to recur with different names. "Who lost China?" has morphed into "Who lost our influence on some corrupt leader we put into power in a tribal backwater?". Of course, for the sake of political correctness the question gets asked in a way that is less revealing. Writing in Foreign Policy Ahmed Rashid has an essay How Obama Lost Karzai.

Ironically, 2010 was supposed to be a new "year one" for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, when the Americans, after years of neglecting the country in favor of Iraq, finally invested the resources necessary to defeat the Taliban and rebuild the country. Instead, things got worse. Last year saw the highest death toll of U.S.-led coalition forces since the beginning of the war, increasing civilian casualties, and the spread of the Taliban insurgency, once contained in south and east Afghanistan, into the north and west as well.

Did Obama lose Afghanistan? Or (much more likely) was it never ours to lose? Also, how did the Taliban spread into areas populated by other tribal groupings? Northern Afghanistan isn't Pashtun and the people in the north do not even belong in the same country as the Pashtun.

At the heart of the failure, both a cause and consequence of it, is the tattered U.S. relationship with Karzai, an alliance that has cost the United States more than $330 billion and nearly 1,400 soldiers' lives, but is now at the lowest ebb of its nearly decade-long history.

One cause of US foreign policy failure in Afghanistan: consanguineous marriage. Lots of illiterate cousins marrying each other with no loyalty to higher level political entities.

What's sad for the Republic: That we can waste a few hundred billion dollars and 1,400 lives (and probably 10 times or more that many with permanent disabilities, including brain damage from IEDs) over 10 years and not have the continuation of the war become a major issue of policy debate.

U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration plainly do not trust the Afghan leader, or even much like him. Apparently convinced that cleaning up the Afghan government is more important to the country's stability than Karzai himself, U.S. authorities have mounted increasingly confrontational anti-corruption investigations of his inner circle.

Okay, Barack Obama does not have great intuitions about handling other people. He is where he is mostly because of the eagerness of others to project their fantasies on him. But America was never going to achieve a great transformation of Afghanistan in the first place. So Obama's mistakes just worsen a naturally bad situation.

From the Afghan president's perspective, Washington treats him with a mixture of insult and confusion. During Obama's December visit to U.S. troops at Bagram air base outside Kabul, bad weather prevented him from flying by helicopter to the nearby capital. Rather than wait for the weather to clear -- a matter of hours perhaps -- Obama left without seeing Karzai. It was a snub that Afghans will not forget. A few days later, Vice President Joe Biden said that U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by 2014 come hell or high water -- and then told Karzai in mid-January that U.S. forces would stay beyond the deadline.

A serious US foreign policy would not have Joe Biden involved in its formulation.

Saleem H. Ali says we should accept that the Pashtun are a bunch of tribal fundamentalist Muslims and repartition Pakistan and Afghanistan to create a region between them where the nutters can practice their own form of governance. See his essay The Islamic Republic of Talibanistan.

The fact is that the Taliban and other Islamist elements are popular in the region out of which they operate, the Pashtun tribal belt between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has always been an utterly conservative locale where the local population has generally favored Islamic fundamentalism. Even going back to the 1930s, Waziristan's rallying flag against the British was a simple white calligraphic "Allah-Akbar" (God is Great) on red fabric.

Give the Pashtuns their own sandbox to play in. Makes sense to me.

Although the West and its allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been terrified by the specter of a second Islamic republic, there is a way to mitigate the threat: the creation of a semiautonomous region where Islamists can exercise their draconian system of law -- if that is what the people agree to impose upon themselves. Just as the creation of Pakistan involved a migration, or hijrah, the radical elements in both countries who yearn for an Islamic emirate can be allowed to migrate to this hinterland and help build their new political order.

As I've previously argued, our national ideology blinds us to the aspects of human nature one needs to understand to handle a place like Afghanistan.

One needs an enormous cynicism about human nature to handle a place like Afghanistan. Our own national ideology of multi-cultural democracy blinds officers and civilian policymakers alike from the mental model of human nature needed to do deals in Afghanistan.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2011 February 25 05:09 PM  MidEast Afghanistan

tacticalchrstn said at February 25, 2011 8:36 PM:

I keep waiting for the USA to form post cold war alliances that make sense. The US, Russia, and India should be allied with Europe and seeking to limit the spread and influence of Islam. Instead the US criticizes Russia for the way they handled the Chechen conflict, and remains entangled in never-ending counterinsurgencies. Islam is not a strategic military threat. Islam is a threat only because of western incompetence.

no i don't said at February 28, 2011 2:09 PM:

Yes, and let's not forget also the threat of Christianity, lingering waaaaaay toooooooo loooooooong...

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