The Obama Administration’s dysfunctional approach to dealing with Iran has many negative consequences for American foreign policy. Those negative consequences are particularly acute for American interests in Afghanistan. U.S. officials are beat a hasty retreat from President Obama’s ill-conceived dressing down of Afghan President Hamid Karzai during Obama’s March 28 stop in Kabul. Obama’s trip to Afghanistan touched off another firestorm of commentary about President Hamid Karzai’s worthiness as America’s “partner”.
But underlying Obama’s ineffective approach to Karzai—an approach tried previously and unsuccessfully by Vice President Biden and special envoy Richard Holbrooke—is a deeper strategic problem: America’s war against Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in Afghanistan was not, is not, and will never be Karzai’s war. America’s only chance at success there is through a regional strategy for Afghanistan that would necessarily include an important role for Iran.
The United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 because Al-Qa’ida had used its sanctuary there to conceive and launch the 9/11 attacks. America’s goals were to punish and, to the extent possible, destroy Al-Qa’ida and its supporters there, and—for some but not all principals in the George W. Bush Administration—to prevent Afghanistan from again serving as a base for launching mass casualty terrorist attacks against the United States. Along with military action, both the George W. Bush Administration and the current Obama Administration have argued that achieving U.S. goals in Afghanistan requires a substantial effort at nation building there.
But Americans are hardly entitled to feel affronted when Karzai does not meet our expectations of him as our partner in Afghanistan—whether with regard to combating opium cultivation and trafficking, pursuing “good governance”, advancing women’s rights, or building a genuinely national Afghan army and national security apparatus. None of those things is a high priority for Karzai. Indeed, U.S. politicians and policymakers do not serve American interests when they not only indulge in public manifestations of dissatisfaction with Karzai over these issues, but let that disappointment actually shape U.S. policy.
Karzai was not selected by the United States and its international partners to serve as Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban president because he has any military background, management experience, or even significant government service. (Karzai served briefly as deputy foreign minister in the Islamist Rabbani government, before the Taliban captured Kabul and proclaimed themselves the government of Afghanistan.) Speaking from my own experience working on Afghan issues in the U.S. government during 2001-2003—first as political adviser to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and then at the White House as the National Security Council’s Director for Afghanistan, Iran and Gulf Affairs—I can testify that Karzai was chosen as Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban president for three basic reasons.
First, the United States and its partners determined that it was useful to have an ethnic Pashtun occupy the presidency. Otherwise, significant parts of the Pashtun population—the largest single ethnic group in Afghanistan, representing 42 percent of the country’s population, and the Taliban’s social base—might revolt against a new political structure. As a non-Taliban Pashtun from an important tribe, Karzai met this criterion.
Second, the new Afghan president needed to be able to serve as a focal point for national reconciliation, to be achieved through carefully negotiated power-sharing arrangements encompassing the range of Afghanistan’s ethnic, sectarian, and tribal groups. Of the 30-odd ministers making up the post-Taliban government that emerged from the December 2001 Bonn conference, only one was selected because of plausible claims to technocratic expertise. Rather, ministers—including those responsible for the military and security forces—were appointed because of their ability to pacify their ethnic, sectarian, and tribal groups and bring them into the process of political reconstitution.
In this context, Karzai was selected as president because he was a prospectively conciliatory figure with assets that could be valuable for post-conflict stabilization. Though Pashtun, he could work constructively with representatives of non-Pashtun groups, including some of Afghanistan’s most powerful warlords. And, while he had supported the U.S. military campaign in 2001, he had not been an ardent Taliban foe. (In fact, Karzai had initially supported the Taliban after they came to power in 1994, because he believed they might be able to ameliorate Afghanistan’s profound disorder and lawlessness.)
Karzai got off to a reasonably good start during his first couple of years in office. But, from his perspective, the first priority in Afghanistan must be stopping the fighting among ethnic, sectarian, and tribal groups that has plagued the country for decades. For Karzai, this objective clearly trumps high priority items on America’s wish list for Afghanistan, such as “good governance” and “capacity building”. Moreover, by 2003, Karzai had recognized that stopping Afghanistan’s ongoing civil war would only happen through power-sharing on a national scale—power-sharing that would have to include the Taliban to be effective. This put Karzai even more profoundly at odds with Washington’s policy preferences. At the same time, America’s military efforts in Afghanistan began prompting an increasingly severe local backlash against what was perceived as a never-ending U.S. occupation—for which Karzai was seen as the primary “lackey”—that has consistently generated unacceptably high civilian casualties.
Because of this impasse, neither Karzai nor Washington has been able to achieve much of what each most wants—and the Taliban have been able to reassert their influence and gain control over ever greater portions of territory. From his first day in office, Karzai has never had control over any of his ministers, let alone over a single Afghan soldier, police officer, or government bureaucrat. Nevertheless, both the George W. Bush Administration and the current Obama Administration have regularly succumbed to the temptation to dump on Karzai for failing to do things he sees as harmful to national reconciliation through power sharing, such as fighting the Taliban and pursuing “good governance”.
Senior U.S. commanders acknowledge there is no purely military solution in Afghanistan. President Obama has indicated that America’s military commitment there is not open-ended. But, if the United States is to withdraw military forces from Afghanistan over the next several years, the Obama Administration needs to embrace precisely what Karzai can offer—national reconciliation through negotiated power-sharing arrangements—and set aside the delusion that Afghanistan can be “stabilized” through domestic transformation along Western lines.
This would mean supporting Karzai in pursuing his most urgent challenge—bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with other Afghan factions while keeping the most strongly anti-Taliban elements at the table, too. That requires a serious diplomatic strategy to elicit the cooperation of Afghan factions’ most important external backers. Washington should be supporting Karzai’s efforts to reach out to Saudi Arabia, which has longstanding ties to the Taliban, to enlist their help in incentivizing the Talban’s cooperation.
But, Iran’s role is especially critical in defining and implementing a serious regional strategy for Afghanistan. As I have testified from own experience in government service, Tehran provided essential support for standing up a post-Taliban government in 2001-2002. If there is to be a stable political settlement in Afghanistan, Iran’s contributions will once again be indispensible. Rather than criticizing Karzai for building a constructive relationship with Iran, Washington should be supporting his efforts to reach out to Tehran. This is essential if Iran is to be persuaded to accept the Taliban’s inclusion in a political settlement, while, at the same time, using Afghan groups to which Iran has ties as a long-term check on the extent of the Taliban’s power and reach.
Hamid Karzai remains a potentially valuable partner—but only if Washington pursues a realistic strategy in Afghanistan.
–Hillary Mann Leverett