How to Gauge Karzai’s U.S. Visit

After months of harsh words, the White House’s conciliatory tone during the Afghan president’s visit was calibrated to encourage Karzai to behave more like a "wartime leader and less like an innocent bystander," says CFR’s Stephen Biddle.  

May 13, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s four-day trip to Washington was marked by an amicable tone from the White House after a period of intense criticism by U.S. officials. The Obama administration’s intention is to persuade Karzai to "start behaving like a wartime leader and less like an innocent bystander in a fight between Americans and other Westerners and the Taliban," says CFR defense expert Stephen Biddle. Biddle notes that while the U.S. still wants Karzai to reform corruption and improve governance, those are messages best delivered in private rather than in public. Obama’s pledge to begin U.S. troop withdrawal by July 2011 may help him with Democrats in the United States, says Biddle, but it also worries Pakistan and causes Karzai to hedge his bets.

Was the principal purpose of this trip to repair relations after the frictions of recent months?

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That was clearly the single biggest purpose of the trip. I don’t think it was the only one, but fences needed to be mended and it was entirely appropriate and important that they do that. I would hope that behind the scenes it was also made clear to Karzai that there are still changes we need from him: We need corruption reform, we need governance improvement. But that has to be done privately rather than publicly. The biggest single problem with the administration’s approach to Karzai in the first part of Obama’s term has been public as opposed to private use of sticks. The other thing this trip could accomplish is to help get both Karzai and his cabinet out of an insular environment in Kabul. One of the interesting things about this trip is just how large an entourage Karzai brought with him.

How many people did he bring?

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It was practically the entire cabinet. Many Westerners in Kabul have a perception that Karzai lives is in a bit of a bubble, that he’s isolated and that his information sources are limited. General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander, has been trying to help Karzai get out and meet his constituents in places like Helmand and Kandahar. We provide military transport and military security to enable him to get out and travel around and just see the place. A common reaction among Western military who’ve been along on these trips is that they’ve been quite struck by how much Karzai has seen as a result.

Part of this trip to Washington, I’m sure, is similarly to get him and his cabinet in touch with a wider range of American opinion. Get them out to Capitol Hill, get them to less senior figures in the executive branch, increase the amount of information they have about American attitudes toward the conflict, as a way of improving their decision-making, given that they may not have been given this information otherwise.

Is it true, as has been reported in the American press, that even though the U.S.-led military intervention in Marja took place in February, it’s still not run by the Afghan civilians?

What’s being reported is what, to some degree, can be expected in the natural history of an operation like that. Establishing counterinsurgency success in a place like Marja means going through a series of stages: clear, hold, build, transition. If you’re going to have a counterinsurgency with the United States involved, it’s much more likely to fail in the hold and build phase than in the clear phase, and we’re fairly early on in the hold and build phase in Marja. It would be very surprising, just in terms of the normal timelines of counterinsurgency, if Marja looked like Atlanta right now.

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It would be very surprising, just in terms of the normal timelines of counterinsurgency, if Marja looked like Atlanta right now.

My sense is that the ordinary indicators of progress are occurring somewhat sooner than you would normally expect. We were getting a surprisingly early transition to civilian tips about locations of roadside bombs, and the presence and identity of insurgents. That’s a strong indicator of local civilian attitudes: It’s very dangerous for a civilian to tip off a government counterinsurgent official because he risks retaliation from insurgents. Normally it takes a long physical presence by the counterinsurgent, in apparent control of the environment, before civilians will take these risks in any significant numbers.

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There’s a lot that could still go wrong, and there’s a lot that has to go right before Marja can be put in the success category. That is particularly true of the "governance in a box" concept that we’re debuting in Marja---bringing in a government team once the military has secured the area. There have been the usual, to-be-expected growing pains in making that work. My assessment of Marja is that the early phases went about as well as you could reasonably expect, but the real test is how it performs over time, and it’s really too early to know very much about that.

The United States has advertised in advance that it’s going to have a major offensive this summer in Kandahar, where the Taliban has been based traditionally. Was preparing for that offensive part of the aim of the visit?

I’m sure that was one part of a pretty lengthy agenda. Part of what we want Karzai to do is, we want him to start behaving like a wartime leader, and less like an innocent bystander, in a fight between Americans and other Westerners and the Taliban. General McChrystal has been trying to get Karzai to make decisions and take responsibility: to "authorize" and "approve" things like the Kandahar plan and the offensive that’s to take place there. Karzai has had a tendency in the way he talks to Afghans to behave as though he’s some sort of third-party intermediary, rather than an actual combatant.

What is this peace "jirga" [assembly] that he has planned for May 29 to work out a program for assimilating Taliban into Afghan society?

It’s related to the problem of getting Karzai to take responsibility for victory over the Taliban, to have him portray himself as a national leader in a war by his government against the Taliban, in which the United States is assisting. Karzai would like to be seen as the man who made peace. He’s much more comfortable in that role than he is in the warrior role.

Part of what’s going on with the peace jirga is Karzai would really like to forge some sort of negotiated settlement that everyone can live with. Another reason for the jirga is we are pressuring him to do things he doesn’t want to do, including, for example, corruption reform. When one party is trying to pressure another to do something they don’t want to do, the other party pushes back and tries to use leverage in another direction. One of Karzai’s potential forms of pushback is the very subtle threat of a separate peace with the Taliban on terms that the Americans can’t or won’t tolerate. He’s a sovereign leader. If he wants to deal with the Taliban, he can do it with or without our approval.

Is there any sign the Taliban leadership is at all interested in this?

The general perception, certainly, in the United States, is that the Taliban still believes that they’re winning the war, hence they’re not willing to compromise much, and therefore the talks aren’t likely to go anywhere in the near term. Other actors in this process have other perceptions. Generally speaking, the British, for instance, seem to be more bullish on this than we are. Karzai seems to be more bullish on this than we are. The reality seems to be that we don’t know. Our ability to discern what’s in the heart of Taliban leadership is limited by all the filters through which we can observe this. This is a very secretive collection of insurgent organizations, which have very substantial divisions among them.

Do we know who’s going to show up at this meeting?

It is primarily an outreach effort to some 1,500 Afghan community leaders to discuss the way forward in reconciliation. U.S. Special Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has implied that the jirga could include some "insurgent leaders," and presumably some of their sympathizers could be among the participants. But the primary purpose of the session is to discuss approaches to negotiation, rather than to negotiate directly with the Taliban as such.

Karzai has had a tendency in the way he talks to Afghans to behave as though he’s some sort of third-party intermediary, rather than an actual combatant.

What should we look for in coming weeks and months in Afghanistan?

We’re going to see the slow buildup of security forces in and around Kandahar, and an attempt to shoulder aside the Taliban shadow government that’s gradually been rooted there. We’ll see continued attempts to solidify governance in Marja and elsewhere in the Helmand River Valley. We’ll eventually see an effort to secure the limited part of the Helmand River Valley that is not currently secure. And I hope we will see a policy toward Karzai that, to a greater degree than in the past, balances sticks and carrots--that isn’t overwhelmingly carrot, as the Bush approach was, or overwhelmingly stick, as the Obama early approach was, but to track back to the center and combine the two in a way that makes the use of sticks privately and delivery of carrots publicly.

What about Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July 2011? Is there any change in that policy?

The president in the press conference with Karzai had some very calculated ambiguity. He made clear that the United States will remain economically and diplomatically engaged long after July 2011. He didn’t say anything about military presence one way or another. You can draw the implication that the military presence would persist as well, albeit in some reduced numbers. But he didn’t say anything about it explicitly either way. I’m sure that was deliberate. I suspect there are several aspects to that. One is that the president has domestic political considerations to keep in mind; the progressive wing of the Democratic Party wants a substantial and rapid withdrawal. But secondly, the administration believes that an absolute commitment to perpetuity of large military forces creates disincentives for Karzai to reform. They want Karzai to think that he needs to do some things in order to get continued American military support. Now, the whole problem with this sort of use of withdrawal threats for leverage is that it has complex effects, some of which help you and some of which hurt you.

Be specific.

It helps you in the sense that it reduces the partner’s belief that they have no need to change because the United States will keep their chestnuts out of the fire in perpetuity militarily. All things being equal, that’s a good thing. But other things aren’t equal. One thing it does--by creating uncertainty about whether or not you’ll stay long enough to make good on your promise to defeat the insurgency--is cause your partners, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, to say, "I’m not so sure how committed the Americans are to this thing, I have to hedge my bets, given that uncertainty."

Certainly for the Pakistanis, the way they hedge their bets is by retaining links to the Afghan Taliban. Because they’re the Pakistanis, they want an insurance policy against American abandonment of Karzai, the collapse of his government. The danger is that if they didn’t keep links to the Afghan Taliban, the result could be a successor government that could be closely aligned with India and seriously affect Pakistan’s interest. If Karzai think there’s some chance the United States is going to walk out in him, then he has to start hedging his bets. And part of that process is, maybe you don’t want to be too harsh with at least all elements of the insurgency, because some of them might end up overwhelming your government, and perhaps you might need to do a deal with them on terms that are more favorable to them than you would like.