At Large

Inside the Obama Afghan Policy

You'd think Barack Obama would get along splendidly with Hamid Karzai.

By 10.1.10

Send to Kindle

When in doubt journalists covering the Afghan conflict fall back on the old "corrupt Karzai government" line. This then is followed by a quote from an assistant secretary of something that suggests that the U.S. government agrees with the information while maintaining the right to withdraw such remarks at a later date. Huh?

It's all very familiar and quite convenient for the White House. In spite of President Obama's well-recognized desire to encourage friendly relations with every Muslim leader he meets, he has treated Hamid Karzai like the proverbial "red-headed stepchild." How is it possible that a former Chicago community organizer, close friend of people like Tony Rezko, William Ayers, and a good political acquaintance of ex-Gov. Blagojevich, can be so upset over nearly overt corruption?

Actually Hamid Karzai should be Barack Obama's favorite type of guy. Karzai is the well-educated son of a major Pushtun political leader gunned down by that Taliban gang in 1999. Hamid "the Smooth" comes from a powerful family with property in the middle of the lush poppy-growing area of Kandahar and elsewhere. His half-brother learned his basic business skills running a restaurant on the north side of Chicago. How difficult is it for Barack Obama to understand the Karzai family?

The ambitious former general, now ambassador Karl Eikenberry found the man he is supposed to be impressing in Afghanistan with the good will of the U.S. to be "bipolar" and vulnerable to a regular intake of "meds." Somehow that doesn't seem to be the best public posture for the chief American diplomat in Kabul. That Eikenberry had been in a self-developed and one-sided feud with the former ISAF chief, General Stanley McChrystal, for the affections of Obama is indicative of the dysfunctional nature of the administration's direction of its Afghan political and military affairs.

General McChrystal was clearly wrong to allow his staffers to shoot off their mouths about the Washington administration--but they told the truth. The problem is that the truth isn't going to change. Gen. David Petraeus is stuck with the same situation and his only choice is to focus on challenging the Taliban while keeping President Karzai involved and interested enough to present a paternal face to the Afghan people. This is hardly the first time the U.S. has had to work with corrupt allies.

Petraeus knows the traditional corruption in the Karzai government acts as a convenient excuse for a White House that clearly refuses to take responsibility for its own inability to handle the broader national security aspects of the Afghan conflict. The consistent leaking of classified intelligence information to favored journalists creates a continuing behind-the-scenes battle fought between Obama representatives and the combat military.

For the Obama presidency Afghanistan was supposed to be "the good war." Now, less than two years after his election, the president's political advisers have changed their collective mind and urged their risk-averse boss to "bug out" of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. The White House-demanded policy has been to press forward with the war on the Taliban while at the same time avoid killing civilians, even if it means allowing insurgents to escape. Such a restriction has inhibited combat effectiveness and endangered our troops.

Somehow this policy, first overseen loyally but reluctantly by the dynamic warrior general, Stan McChrystal, is supposed also to be pursued now by the equally dynamic diplomat general, Dave Petraeus. This nice sounding but totally ineffectual war-fighting concept will not work any better under Petraeus than it did under McChrystal -- nor will it ever against a dedicated and resourceful foe.

The offensive launched this week in Kandahar Province is Petraeus's chance to secure that area. The Obama-urged strategy is to strike a hard -- but collateral damage avoiding -- blow against the Taliban forcing them into a defensive negotiating position. This was the original plan unsuccessfully pursued in Marjah last spring as the defeated Taliban simply returned covertly among the populace. This time the Afghan Army is supposed to enforce post-combat pacification. At least that's the theory.

The recent elections showed how effective Taliban persuasion can be. Small minorities of eligible voters turned out -- and their votes were scarred by illegal counting, attacks on polling stations and general voter intimidation. Meanwhile in some population centers, such as Paktia, a reported turnout of 111.37% indicated glaring fraud. A fearful electorate whose true voice is impossible to hear cannot build a democracy. And an American administration that seeks only to pretend it's fighting a war is not one that encourages local people to endanger their lives by voting.

Barack Obama is not a fighter. At best he is a negotiator -- except in this case the really hardcore Taliban see no point in negotiating. The Americans will leave anyhow. The American president has said so. The published timetable puts July 2011 as the start date -- conditions based. Defense Secretary Gates has announced he will be leaving about the same time. "Conditions based" is strictly political cover.

The departure of at least part of the American/NATO force has to be expected by Karzai. Quixotic or not, Hamid Karzai is smart enough to realize he has to make a deal with the Taliban or "get out of Dodge." Obama is already counting on the withdrawal of U.S. combat operations by next summer to kick off his reelection campaign. Hamid Karzai knows that, too. He is feverishly attempting to line up cooperative Taliban offering a semblance of security and a veneer of victory.

The only question left unanswered is whether General Petraeus will continue to go along with this plan for the next nine months. If he does, he will be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. If he doesn't, someone will want him as a presidential candidate.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.