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Afghanistan Success Hinges on Karzai Reforms

Interviewee: Stephen Biddle, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
January 27, 2010

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Just back from his latest trip to Afghanistan, CFR defense analyst Stephen Biddle says that the allied command is guardedly optimistic that they will eventually succeed. But he notes that in a counterinsurgency "things get worse, inevitably, before they get better," and there is concern about whether there will be enough time for current plans to succeed. He also said, on the eve of an international conference in London on Afghanistan, that success in Afghanistan will "require, among other things, a conscious decision by [President] Hamid Karzai to . . . implement reforms. If we cannot persuade him to do that, we are not going to succeed."

You've just returned from your first visit to Afghanistan since President Obama's announcement in December that he would increase force levels by thirty thousand and try to set a target date of July 2011 to start the withdrawal. What's the atmosphere like in Afghanistan among the allied forces?

There's a substantial amount of guarded optimism that the campaign plan they have now is sound and, if allowed to unfold, will eventually succeed in producing something tolerable. Among the problems, however, is that there is an inevitable "darkness before the dawn" quality to counterinsurgency. Things get worse before they get better, if they are going to get better at all. But when you take troops from fortified bases and distribute them in closer proximity to the civilian population that you're trying to protect, that always exposes them to casualties early on. By definition, you're challenging Taliban control over areas that they had controlled. What you get is an increase in casualties, an increase in violence, an increase in general mayhem before things turn around and start getting better.

There are press reports that as part of this new strategy there's an effort to enlist willing Taliban members to join the government. Is that being tried actively?

There's a lot of attention being paid to what in Kabul is referred to as "reintegration and reconciliation." "Reintegration" is the process of weaning low-level Taliban fighters and relatively junior faction leaders to switch sides and come in out of the cold. "Reconciliation" is the more political process of negotiating with high-level leaders on the Taliban side, many of whom are based in Pakistan. Both of those are getting a lot of attention in theater, and a lot of effort is put in to evaluating their prospects and to make them as practical as possible.

There is going to be an international conference on Afghanistan in London on Thursday, hosted by the Afghan government, the British, and the UN. That leads to the question: What's President Hamid Karzai's standing right now? He obviously has been weakened by last summer's election, where there was widespread ballot fraud, right?

He's been weakened by it in some ways, and he's been strengthened by it in others. He is now unambiguously the president of Afghanistan. Before the election, you could entertain some possibility he might be replaced. But certainly for the foreseeable future he is going to be the guy. His standing in the West is dramatically weaker as a result of the corruption of the election process. Whether that has made him a stronger or weaker political actor in Afghanistan, whether it's made him more or less able to resist pressure from the United States to get him to clean up his government, we're just going to have to see.

There are many who believe that Karzai's leverage against us is up now that the prospects of his removal from office are negligible. There are others who believe that the tarnishing of his reputation that came along with the corruption opens him to potential pressure from us. Either way, if we are going to get the governmental change we need in Afghanistan, it is going to require, among other things, a conscious decision by Hamid Karzai to support it and to implement reforms. If we cannot persuade him to do that, we are not going to succeed.

One of the central problems we've got in this war, as we have in almost all counter-insurgency efforts, is that our interests and the host government's interests are never completely aligned.

What do you make of the fact that the parliament has twice rejected many of his cabinet nominees?

There are many schools of thought on what that means, and I don't think it's clear yet. There are layers upon layers upon layers of Afghan political intrigue associated with all of that. I think the most we can say with any really definitive knowledge is what I said before: We require political change from Karzai. That's going to require the West to bring corps of leverage to bear, and possibly to bring inducement to bear, regardless of what eventually shakes out with respect to Karzai's relationship to his own parliament.

He obviously knows about the concerns in the West, particularly in the United States. What is it he wants right now?

Like anybody else, he's got a hierarchy of things that he wants. His own health and survival presumably rank pretty high on the list, for example. In a war like this, you could imagine that if does not turn out well for him--if the Taliban take over, for example--he could end up with the Benito Mussolini treatment at the hands of a new regime. [The former Italian dictator was executed by gunfire on April 28, 1945, by Italian Communist partisans.] So the stakes for him personally are potentially quite high.

His currently secured position was achieved through a set of politically made deals with a variety of power-brokers in Afghanistan. Some are with potential government and faction leaders. Others are shadier, like for example his relationship with his brother, Ahmed Wali, and Ahmed Wali's shady economic dealings. If he's going to continue to keep himself in office through this kind of deal making, it's going to be very hard for him to respond to the United States entreaties that he clean up government. One way that he's maintained these alliances is by offering political protection for people who are engaged in corrupt activities. One of the central problems we've got in this war, as we have in almost all counterinsurgency efforts, is that our interests and the host government's interests are never completely aligned. What we want and what the host wants are almost always different to some greater or lesser degree, and it's often greater rather than lesser.

That was true in Iraq also, I guess?

It was true in Iraq, it was true in Vietnam, it was true in Central America. It's almost always true. You get an insurgency in the first place usually because you've got a government that to some degree isn't serving the interests of its citizens very well. And often that's because they have self interests that conflict with things important to segments of the population. In Iraq, for example, the Sunni population felt essentially threatened by the sectarian impulses of a Shiite regime. In Afghanistan, you have a situation in which large parts of the population feel alienated from a government that has substantial kleptocratic tendencies.

Are the U.S. and NATO commanders looking this spring for a big offensive?

It's been pretty well telegraphed that there will be offensive action in Helmand, for example, this spring, especially in the village of Marja, a Taliban stronghold in the Helmand River Valley. That was inevitably going to be the case. The whole idea in a large troop increase is to extend the part of the populated areas of Afghanistan that we could control. That inevitably is going to require offensive action to contest areas that are currently Taliban controlled.

How much of a blow was that double agent's suicide bombing in Khost, which killed some CIA people?

It was a blow, but I don't think it was a decisive event in the war. I think unfortunately we can expect a fair frequency of that sort of thing. Inherent in counterinsurgency is a concealed enemy whose identity is unknown to you, who will try to penetrate the government's security forces and friendly security forces. The specific approach to the war that we're pursuing, in which we partner with and operate very closely together with indigenous forces, means that we are inevitably going to be exposed when penetrations occur, as they will from time to time, no matter how carefully you try to prevent it. There have been situations in which Afghan units that we were training and partnering with have killed friendly soldiers.

Are the American commanders pleased with the decision to send this many troops in such a short time? Can they handle that many by the summer, which is when Obama said they would be in place?

The rate at which the forces can be brought into theater is controversial within the administration. The logisticians associated with the war in Afghanistan see a lot of barriers to rapid deployment. This is an extremely difficult part of the world to operate in. It's primitive logistically, underdeveloped, land-locked, and a long, long way from the United States. The president wanted the troops deployed as fast as they possibly could, and the result of that was a very demanding and optimistic timetable that may or may not get met. If it doesn't get met, they won't miss by much, but I think there's a distinct chance that they'll miss by at least something.

One of the challenges at the moment, looking forward, given that you can expect it's going to look worse before it looks better, is how is that going to affect America's willingness to stay with this long enough to see the improvement?

When you talk about logistics, everyone of course talks about Pakistan. Is this a real irritant in the minds of the commanders in Afghanistan? Do they feel that they get enough cooperation from the Pakistanis?

My sense of the attitude around the headquarters is that they're more optimistic than they had been. In general, the willingness of the Pakistanis to conduct a serious offensive in South Waziristan was seen as a pretty positive sign. The degree of pushback that we got to our request to extend that offensive in North Waziristan obviously wasn't welcome. But my sense is that the larger impression of the narrative of U.S.-Pakistani relations has been that, in general, people thought that was looking up. And when you get into the issue of "reintegration and reconciliation" [of the Taliban] for example, among the reasons why I think some people are more optimistic about that now than they had been, is that they see more likelihood that the Pakistanis are going to apply some pressure on the other side, and create some incentives for Taliban factions to negotiate rather than continuing to fight.

Can you get these warlords back in the fold?

Now this is what "reconciliation," as distinct from "reintegration," is all about. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is the one that people often talk about first. There are some leaders under Hekmatyar that have already changed sides. It's probably the case that Hekmatyar is more open to this kind of negotiation than many other faction leaders are.

So how did you feel after this latest visit? You said that headquarters is a little more optimistic, but what does that mean?

Since July, events in the theater have unfolded about as the command had expected them to. The parts of the Helmand River Valley, for example, where we've deployed a significant troop presence, are now much more secure than they were. The parts of the east where we put significant efforts are now much more secure. When I was in the country, for example, we went out to places like Baraki Barak and even parts of the Pech River Valley and lots of people have been through Nawa and Helmand recently. You can go through places like that, that were dangerously insecure not very long ago, without body armor. You can make purchases at the market places. None of this produces, you know, carpets of rose petals along which you can walk to cheering throngs of multitudes thanking you for your efforts on their behalf.

In places I went on this last trip, my sense of the population at large is that they were tolerant of us. Not overjoyed, tolerant at best. But I think what it suggests, not surprisingly, is that if you deploy enough density of capable counterinsurgents, you can stabilize populated areas. Also unsurprisingly, the violence goes up in the short term when you do that. One of the challenges at the moment, looking forward, given that you can expect it's going to look worse before it looks better, is how is that going to affect America's willingness to stay with this long enough to see the improvement? The whole question of how much time will this campaign have to unfold is a key issue, and a key uncertainty, given that the administration has deliberately declined to pin itself down on exactly how long the troop presence will last, and exactly what, for example, the July 2011 withdrawal date actually means.

With the domestic economy looming so large in people's minds, the voters haven't paid that much attention to Afghanistan. There isn't the kind of pressure at the ballot boxes that you had in Iraq in 2006.

No there isn't, in part because the war doesn't have the partisan role that it had in 2006. Now we have a Democratic president waging this war, with substantial Republican support, and substantial moderate Democratic support. Because the positions on the war don't line up as naturally along partisan lines, the heat-level of the debate hasn't been quite as high. But that's not to say that this war isn't tremendously controversial and could easily be an issue in the midterm and/or in a reelection campaign for the president.

You mean if it goes bad?

The politics of this turn centrally on whether the war is going well or going badly. What the president's West Point speech did is it stanched the bleeding, in terms of public support for the war. It shored up the Democratic Party on the war by bringing moderates into the tent in clear support of the president's policy. Progressives still don't like it, but moderate Democrats are accepting it now. What all that did was to buy some time politically until the next big decision point. That is going to be late this year. But it didn't resolve the war once and for all, and the politics of the war at this point turn centrally on how well or badly it goes. If it goes badly, then the whole issue of Democratic Party support for the war is going to reemerge, and if it goes badly for an extended period of time, Republican Party support for the war, I think, is not nearly as solid as some people assume.

What is the "next big decision point"?

Well the administration said that it was going to make a decision, once and for all, about July 2011, and about whether or not there would be a withdrawal, and how much, in December of 2010. So there's a decision point coming up then. The midterm election campaign is also inevitably going to raise Afghanistan again to some greater or lesser point.

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