Karzai Defeats Obama 2-1

Afghanistan is already beginning to defeat Barack Obama. He came into office last year clearly hoping to find a way to move Hamid Karzai, the mercurial and ineffectual president of Afghanistan who only controls some 30 percent of the country, out of office in favor of someone more capable as a leader. Perhaps he had in mind the way the US allied with Kurds, Sunnis and other Shiites to dump Ibrahim Jaafari as prime minister of Iraq in the first months of 2006. But Karzai fought back with all his considerable local resources, arranging to steal the presidential election of August 2009 and then to behave so extravagantly that he discouraged his only major challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, from even mounting a run-off challenge. The breathtaking boldness of this blatant set of slaps in the face of Washington and other international patrons astonished UN diplomat and former US ambassador Peter Galbraith, who went public with his criticisms of Karzai and got himself summarily fired.

Even as Karzai was stealing the election and shoring up his power by depending on his brothers and on cronies (who have been accused by some high US officials of being a drug cartel), he was continuing to reach out behind the scenes to his primary internal enemies, the old-time mujahidin (Gulbadin Hikmatyar’s Islamic Party militia in the Pashtun East and the Haqqani Network of Jalal and Siraj Haqqani) and the Old Taliban of Mulla Omar. The US was opposed to such contacts, and some US military personnel saw Karzai’s negotiations with people who were actively attempting to kill American soldiers little short of treasonous.

In contrast, Obama’s plan for Afghanistan was a massive counter-insurgency effort, including the adding of tens of thousands of new troops and hard war fighting aimed at taking and holding vast swathes of territory. It is an audacious plan and its chance of success is about 10%. It is more or less opposed by Karzai, who expressed himself lukewarm about the first major demonstration project in Marjah, the success of which is still questionable.

Obama had tried and failed to dislodge Karzai by disparaging him, had opposed Karzai’s negotiations with insurgents, and had imposed on the reluctant Karzai and enormous new military occupation of his own power base in the Pashtun West.

Relations got so bad that a few weeks ago Karzai threatened to go over to to the Taliban.

This week in Washington, Obama finally backed down. He feted Karzai and made sure he felt wanted. He acquiesced in Kabul’s outreach to the insurgents. He reconfigured his troop escalation as helpful pressure on the guerrillas to force them to the negotiating table.

Karzai mostly won, though he hadn’t gotten the hated counter-insurgency plan cancelled and could still see his beloved Qandahar invaded and occupied by the white Christian Westerners this summer. Still, Obama’s own plans for Afghanistan lay in tatters as he is forced to face the harsh limits on US capacity to shape a huge, craggy, tribal country half way around the world.

Radio Azadi reports in Dari Persian that Afghanistan’s independent human rights commission was disappointed that the communiques coming out of the White House and Karzai’s office about the meetings in Washington did not foreground the welfare of the actual people of Afghanistan, or human rights in that country, or improvements in the position of women.

PBS Newshour has video which is as usual professional. But the title, “Obama, Karzai Renew Pledge to Continue Fight Against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan,” drives me crazy. There is no al-Qaeda to speak of in Afghanistan and that organization is irrelevant to the social and political struggles in that country. Obama himself continues to frame whatever it is he thinks he is doing in that country in those terms, which does not inspire confidence. But why would among our best foreign affairs programs fall for that rhetoric?

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27 Responses

  1. As usual, an excellent article. However, I laughed aloud at “cronies (who have been accused by some high US officials of being a drug cartel)”…Are you not aware of the activities of the U.S. in Afghanistan when it comes to opium production and protection? Even Geraldo Rivera, hardly the most scrupulous journalist in the world, has managed to report on how U.S. troops are now protecting the poppy fields, even though he spouted some ludicrous motives for this enterprise.

    As much as we all hate the Taliban, it is a fact that Afghanistan significantly reduced its opium production when they were in charge. Since the illegal invasion by the U.S. and its allies, there has been a considerable reduction in the price of heroin on the streets in Europe, the same might be true for America but I have no friends there who use the stuff. I’m not a fan of Alex Jones or his anti-socialist site prisonplanet, but his reporting of the drugs issue in the U.S., and of the escalation of commando-style style raids on casual users (of cannabis, mostly), and the reporting by much more reliable sources of the growth in the prison building business, and of the populations now filling these prisons, makes me wonder if all these loose threads are not somewhat related. The erosion of civil liberties (the citizens right to demonstrate or protest, for one), the increase in the number of prisons and of prisoners, the increase in the numbers of militaristic police squads, the reduction in the price of heroin and the increasing ease of access to the stuff, U.S. forces protecting poppy fields – it’s hard to not believe that these are not in someway linked. The question is how, and why?

  2. Dr. Cole, Your last two posts end in a bewildered question about the motivations of the player’s actions you are reviewing and attempting to analyze. Where is the mystery? These are deliberate positions and decisions taken by highly competent and responsible elite entities. Please take off those rose-coloured glasses you persist in sporting. Your resulting conclusions would be less quoted, but far more valuable. Scott Douglas

  3. “But why would among our best foreign affairs programs fall for that rhetoric?” Ummm, because the Newshour has swallowed the propaganda koolaid and become just another irrelevant outlet for warmongering hysteria?

    • I am with you don.

      Similarly, our NPR always labels Muqtada al-Sadr as the “young radical Shiite” cleric. Agreed, he is young and he is Shiite. But what is so radical about opposing occupation by a foreign invading army? To me this is a very universal trait. One could even say it is as American as apple pie.

      I was, and still am, rather upset about NPR. I have contacted them several times with my concerns but have never received a response. I would not be upset if it were Fox News. What is so dangerous about PBS and NPR is that they have a certain reputation of being objective. Therefore their use of labels, based on bias, has a much harmful effect.

  4. If Afghanistan is not to be governed by Karzai, then by whom and how will that be an improvement? Others involved in the government don’t seem to be paragons of Enlightenment values, able administrators, or honest. Reversion to a warlord/Taliban standoff seems to be the likeliest result, which might well provide sanctuary to al Qaeda once more.

    Obama seems to be qualitatively better at managing the war than Bush, but it remains a mess. One of the largest problems seems to be the continual shifting of focus, tactics, objectives and investment by the US. Winding the war down to a peace which is not simply a transfer back to the Taliban will be long, difficult, expensive and undoubtedly cost many more lives. This may be preferable to other outcomes. But it must be based on no longer alienating the populace, and the establishment of safe, self governing areas with sufficient local economies to be able to resist the Taliban.

    Bush could have delayed the invasion by a few weeks and permitted the Taliban to hand over al Qeada, but he couldn’t be bothered. He also decided to expand the war to Iraq before US forces could mop them up. And we will continue to pay a heavy price for those mistakes for a very long time, regardless of what Obama may or may not do.

  5. I watched Karzai working his bait yesterday. I thought he was masterful. Were he an angler, he would definitely be a tournament contender.

  6. You say:
    But the title, “Obama, Karzai Renew Pledge to Continue Fight Against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan,” drives me crazy. There is no al-Qaeda to speak of in Afghanistan and that organization is irrelevant to the social and political struggles in that country.
    Al Jazeera reports:
    The US president also said the two countries had a “shared goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda”.

    So it would seem that your problem is not really with PBS (its title is accurate), rather your problem is with our President himself. Obama is an improvement over Bush/Cheney for sure, but still he is just another demonizing USA politician.

    • I think Juan Cole was making the point that PBS should know better, and not just repeat the spin.

    • “So it would seem that your problem is not really with PBS (its title is accurate), rather your problem is with our President himself. Obama is an improvement over Bush/Cheney for sure, but still he is just another demonizing USA politician.”

      Yes, and yes.

  7. “PBS Newshour has video which is as usual professional. But the title, “Obama, Karzai Renew Pledge to Continue Fight Against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan,” drives me crazy. There is no al-Qaeda to speak of in Afghanistan and that organization is irrelevant to the social and political struggles in that country.” I know, Juan ~ it’s frustrating as hell. The whole military occupation of Afghanistan is just mind-boggling: the NATO-American forces, whatever their stated “strategy,” in their day-by-day deeds seem to be casting about for something constructive to do, for some reason for their assault troops to actually be there. insofar as ‘al-Qaeda’ goes I daresay “that organization is irrelevant to the social and political struggles in Pakistan,” too. If anything, I admit that I have become even more cynical about ‘al-Qaeda’ than you, professor — imho Zawahiri and his muse, bin Laden were a pair leading no more band of brigands than their own bodyguards, until the U.S. wanted to prosecute them in absentia in early 2001, and the only way they could do so was to employ the RICO – Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, thereby creating the genesis of some hierarchic, corrupt organization (not unlike, e.g., some notion of Cosa Nostra). We didn’t find the “network of bunkers” in Tora Bora that Mr. Rumsfeld and the neocons all said was there for the same reason that we didn’t find WMD’s that they said were in Iraq: because there’s no there, there. imho, ‘al-Qaeda’ is an ethereal cause célèbre, a djinni, not some real cabal of enemy combatants.. Not unlike the British historian / documentary film-maker, Adam Curtis ~ The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear ~ I have come to believe that ‘al-Qaeda’ is nothing more than a necessary invention for post-Cold War western states to continue their Military-Industrial rôle as “providing security to the populace.” In the final analysis, ‘al-Qaeda’ is irrelevant to the social and political struggles in America! It is this futile, NO EXIT hunt for these phantom, existential fears of our own making that is the true enemy of our future.

  8. We seem to come closer to the apparent matter of difference — Karzai believes that progress can only be made if some sort of peace can be negotiated while TeamAmerica somehow persists in believing that perpetual war of “the beatings will continue until morale improves” variety will do the trick — which “trick” that might be and more importantly “when” are unanswered existing in some pie-in-the-sky day when they stand up so we can stand down.

    Afghanistan is not Iraq — In Iraq, the citizenry had living memory of a functioning government and a (relatively) civil society based (more or less) on rules of law. This is not the case in Afghanistan where more-or-less despotic fiefdoms seem to be the “ruling” priniciples/principals.

    I suspect that Karzai realizes that combatting “corruption” is a matter of shoveling shit against the tide in a country whose primary economic activity (beyond foreign aid based largesse) is the narcotic business — growing, processing, distributing, banking, investing. It’s hard (if not impossible) to combat all those people with suitcases full of cash operating at all levels — See also Colombia.

    Infrastructure investments in alternative crops or electrification — for instance — are exercises in futility if they simply become the chess pieces in a never-ending turf war.

    This is our beef with Karzai. Funny how “we” who have never had even a major battle on our own turf — except 09/11 but only if we stretch various definitions enormously — within living memory are so eager to sacrifice the lives of others, those locals of foreign lands we claim to be “helping.”

    As was asked on Maddow’s show last night — Explain to me again exactly why aren’t we fighting in Pakistan? (I think we all know the answer to that little question.)

  9. Taliban has eradicated poppy cultivation from Afghanistan, the fact reported by various news media outlets at the time.
    At one time India was the biggest producer of opium under mighty British Raj, they even fought opium wars with China to put them under the spell of opium & British make money & lots of money. USA is fighting unending drug war in Colombia for the last almost half a century. Now US & British troops are in Afghanistan & poppy cultivation is back. One cannot hide Poppy fields like the ever elusive WMDS in Iraq or Osama in Tora Bora mountains.
    It is very easy to put blame that warlords are making money, but the real question is this who is making the “real Money?” During Vietnam War, it was widely believed that narcotics were shipped by Air America, a clandestine arm of CIA.
    The economies of “PIGS” countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece & Spain) are bad as news media is reporting & some are saying Mighty British economy is also into doldrums. The British Empire on which sun never used to set, alas, the time has changed so much that now sun hardly rises on Little Britain. I wonder if little Britain & CIA are behind in Afghan opium trade to support the war efforts in Afghanistan & Iraq.
    May be, one day, when Unocal Oil Pipe Line from Turkmenistan to Gwadar in Pakistan is complete & start generating money the poppy field of Afghanistan will disappear. And may be Hamid Karzai, if he survives that long, will be our real friend.

  10. Your complaint about PBS is unfounded. If Obama and Karzai state that they are renewing their pledge to combat Al Queda, then PBS has to report that Obama and Karzai stated that they renewed their pledge to combat Al Queda. The first step in journalism is to state the facts of what happened, and a statement from these 2 is news that has to be reported, like it or not. Don’t blame the messenger. Then, as step 2, PBS can and should do some analysis and commentary, hopefully pointing out how stupid the statement is.

  11. If you replay the tape of the joint press conference opening statements, you may note that neither Pres. Karzai nor Pres. Obama refer to the Taliban in a single instance. Mr. Obama does refer to al-Qaeda and its “extremist” allies. You may wish to consider whether this amounted to an open door for Karzai to engage elements of the Taliban he alone considers worthy in negotiations in the coming ‘Peace Jirga.”

  12. Let me see if I got this right…Karzai is a crook, his brother is a dope dealer and he wants to make kissy face with the Taliban. And we give a s*it because?

    When the 20 Saudi’s took out two buildings in NY with the support of a few thousand low-lifes living in quite nice caves in the Tora Bora area of a bag of shite that passes for a country of poppy growing religious fundamentalists – the West should have just sighed, doubled and triple checked any persons coming to the West from that part of the world and sent in some CIA guys with licenses to kill specific bad guys. Instead, the brain dead American morons have invested trillions of their quickly depreciating coin in two outrageous, illegal, immoral wars – which are both still sucking down coin faster than it can be minted – all for the sake of … of… ???

    Grow Up! Take your 11 Nuclear Carrier Battle Groups and your thousands of troops, in your 1,000 + foreign military bases, BACK HOME and walk along your southern shores for the next generation cleaning up oil. At least then you’d be getting something for the joy you get owning more weapons than the rest of the world combined. Brother!

  13. Where can I find out how many U.S. troops there are in Afghanistan? I’ve lost track with the troop increases and I can’t find any current troop level information anywhere.

  14. .
    To deconstruct the whole “Counterinsurgency” meme, a couple of foundational points:
    Counterinsurgency is an effort to counter the effects of an insurgency, so there has to be an Insurgency first.
    An Insurgency is an uprising against a duly constituted and legitimized government, one that enjoys the consent of the governed, or something like that. The de facto government of Afghanistan is the collection of American officials who run the military occupation. The nominal government headed by President Karzai is widely regarded in Afghanistan to be quisling collaborators with a foreign occupation army.
    there is no legit national government supported by the populace. Viz, there can be no Insurgency, or a Counterinsurgency.
    What President Obama calls a Counterinsurgency could just as fairly be called an effort to subjugate the local population. What we call an Insurgency could also be named a Resistance to foreign occupation, and perhaps even colonization.

    “Strategic Communicators” are seeded throughout the US Government, using Ameri-centric labels to interpret events for the public, sparing them from having to think about such confusing matters. Consequently, the US public cannot fathom why the brown people of the global south show no gratitude for all we do to modernize them and liberate them. My neighbors cannot imagine that there is any other viewpoint than the one proffered by Dana Perino-Robert Gibbs. They cannot visualize the point of view of the other.

    Where to now, St. Obama ?

    • Recently I I had a discussion with an old acquaintance of mine, who is a highly educated, retired professional, and who has worked for decades in Europe, that the media landscape in Western Europe is more diverse, more critical and more open than the mainstream media in the US. He would not have none of that. That made me realize how bleak the situation in this country is.

  15. Could this be the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan? Obama’s new relatively friendly stance with Karzai could be just paving the way for further agreements that will allow us to leave that country. It’s all political, yes, but it seems this is the way to get the U.S. out.

  16. Afghanistan is not winnable! Pouring money into an abyss! Time to bring back the draft and wake up an apathetic America!

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