A Washington Post interview with Afghan President Hamid Karzai has Washington’s political-media complex buzzing. But our media mavens and politicos should know better: Karzai’s remarks demonstrate nothing more than that he is a wily politician saying what he thinks he must say in order to survive.
Karzai created news by apparently suggesting that there is a rift between him and Petraeus. He said, for instance, that he wants U.S. military operations there to wind down, and for the U.S. military presence in his country to become less visible and less intrusive. Nighttime military raids, he declared, must end.
That sounds ominous. It sounds as if Karzai is prepared to dispense altogether with U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. In fact, though, nothing could be further from the truth, as any fair and close reading of his remarks shows.
The supposed rift that exists between Karzai and Petraeus stems from a stepped-up U.S. military campaign to hunt and kill Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. As it was in Iraq, this military campaign has been devastatingly effective, resulting in the death and intimidation of hundreds of Taliban fighters.
Karzai, however, complains that
the raids are a problem… They have to go away. The Afghan people don’t like these raids. If there is any raid, it has to be done by the Afghan government within the Afghan laws. This is a continuing disagreement between us.
Karzai further tells the Post that
The time has tome to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan…to reduce the intrusiveness into daily Afghan life.
Of course, no one really disagrees with this. Gen. Petraeus himself, in fact, has said many times that, in a counterinsurgency, military operations are inherently problematical because they risk alienating the very people whose allegiance we are trying to win.
That’s why our military operations are very precise and very targeted: because we recognize that collateral damage can turn tactical victories into a larger-scale strategic defeats. Indeed, as Gen. Petraeus observed in his counterinsurgency guidance:
Fight with discipline. If we kill civilians or damage their property in the course of our operations, we will create more enemies than our operations eliminate. That’s exactly what the Taliban want. Don’t fall into their trap. We must continue our efforts to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum…
Be a good guest. Treat the Afghan people and their property with respect. Think about how we drive, how we patrol, how we relate to people, and how we help the community. View our actions through the eyes of the Afghans and, together with our partners, consult with elders before pursuing new initiatives and operations…
Earn the people’s trust, talk to them, ask them questions, and learn about their lives…
Our soldiers and Marines have taken Petraeus’s guidance to heart. Thus they work diligently to minimize the intrusiveness and disruptiveness of their military operations.
But the truth is that military operations — and especially nighttime raids — are violent and deadly affairs in which doors get knocked down and people get killed. There is simply no way around this.
“We understand President Karzai’s concerns,” one anonymous NATO official told the Post. “But we would not be as far along as we are [in] pursuing the [Taliban and al-Qaeda] network[s] had it not been for these very precision operations [that] we do at night.”
Karzai and the Afghan people want these nighttime raids to end; and so, too, does Gen. Petraeus and the U.S. military.
And, eventually, they will end (or at least be much reduced in scope). But that will take time, just as it took time in Iraq. Karzai knows this; but he’s a politician who, understandably, wants to cater to his domestic political base.
“The raiding [of] homes at night,” he explains is “terrible [and] a serious cause of the Afghan people’s disenchantment with NATO and with the Afghan government.
Karzai told the Post that to the extent these nighttime raids are a military necessity, they should be done by Afghan troops and not foreign forces.
Bursting into homes at night, arresting Afghans — this isn’t the business of any foreign troops. Afghans have to do that. And one of the important elements of [the] transition that we’re working on is to end [these] raids of Afghan homes and [the] arrest of Afghans by foreign forces…
Again, no one disagrees with this. Absolutely: Afghan troops should be in the lead. They should be the ones who conduct military operations in their country.
Some Afghan troops are at the forefront of military operations there, but not enough: because too few Afghan soldiers and commandos have yet to be adequately trained and mentored. In time, though, this will change.
Again, Karzai knows this. But because he’s a shrewd and savvy pol, he’s wisely saying what he knows everyone — and especially his people, the Afghan people — wants to hear. Machiavelli would be proud.
Karzai also throws some bones to President Obama and administration politicos. He declares, for instance, that:
Ten years is a long time to continue to have military operations. The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan…
You [the United States] cannot sustain that, first of all, on your own, for long. Second, it’s not desirable for the Afghan people either: to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly.
There has to be a plan inside whereby the Afghan capacity increases [and] whereby the NATO presence decreases — to the extent that we can provide our own security; that we can also contribute to the security of the world; and where you can also have the unnecessary burden on your taxpayer removed for paying for such an extensive presence in Afghanistan.
But this is no different, really, from what President Obama himself has said:
It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan…
That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended: because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.
Of course, Obama’s rhetoric and timeline for withdrawal have made life much more difficult for our troops. Karzai knows this; but he also knows and needs Obama. So he says publicly what he knows the president wants to hear.
In short, when you read beyond the headlines to examine what Karzai actually said, there’s really not much cause for concern. The man’s a politician pandering to both his domestic political base and his political paymasters in Washington. Why should anyone, and especially Beltway politicos, be surprised to learn that a politician is practicing politics?
John R. Guardiano is a writer and analyst in Arlington, Virginia. He writes and blogs for a variety of publications, including FrumForum, the American Spectator and The Daily Caller. Follow him at his personal blog, ResoluteCon.com, and on Twitter @JohnRGuardiano.