Mark Jacobson: The Karzai we need
February 20th, 2013
02:06 PM ET

Mark Jacobson: The Karzai we need

EDITOR'S NOTE: From 2009-2011, Mark R. Jacobson (Twitter: @markondefense) served as the Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan. He is now a Senior Advisor to the Truman National Security Project and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

From Mark Jacobson, Special to CNN

Some senior diplomats have called Afghan President Hamid Karzai the most difficult leader the United States has dealt with in modern times. In fairness, Afghanistan itself may be one of the most complex and unforgiving political environments any leader can ever have to deal with.

And deal with him they must. Since 2010 when, at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Karzai expressed the collective wish of the Afghan people for self-reliance, the United States and our allies have been moving toward Afghanistan, taking the lead on security. Both sides understood that this transition was neither going to be easy - nor completed - without disagreements about approach.

Karzai sensibly said that the "maturity" of the NATO-Afghan partnership would provide for the discussion of these anticipated difficult issues, such as detentions, civilian casualties and corruption, and that there was a premium on the need to resolve these disputes "in a spirit of collaboration and teamwork."

Unfortunately, he has continued to remain less committed to that spirit of collaboration and partnership. As a result, the international effort in support of the Afghan people may be weakening.

Afghan strategy shift also transfers risk

The planned and deliberate withdrawal of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force troops is in full swing. To his credit, Karzai has taken ownership of the conflict and pushed the international community toward doing less itself and more on increasing efforts to build Afghan capacity.

He has secured "strategic partnerships" with the NATO alliance and bilateral agreements with several nations - including India, Germany and Norway - to help Afghanistan over the long term.

But there is another Karzai: one who makes provocative and sometimes inaccurate statements that call into question the intentions and efforts of the international community. Karzai has unforgivingly attacked NATO over the issue of civilian casualties, and decried international economic and development aid as the sole cause of corruption in Afghanistan. He has claimed that it is the bureaucratic obstinacy of the coalition, and not any internal Afghan deficiencies, that have stunted progress in the fight against the insurgency. This is hardly the language of "cooperation and teamwork."

I witnessed this routine personally, time and time again, during my time as a senior official at ISAF headquarters. Karzai's attacks often follow a similar pattern: a hyperbolic statement, a clarification, and then a slight rollback on the initial position for the international media. Some have said that he is simply playing to his domestic base, particularly southern Pashtuns, who are concerned that Karzai only acts only at the bequest of the international community. This particular approach, whatever the calculus, harms the ability of the international community to maintain its already fragile parliamentary and public support for engagement in Afghanistan.

Karzai's most recent statement - that he will prohibit Afghan troops from calling in ISAF air support under "any circumstances" - reflects this problem. This move followed a joint Afghan-NATO operation, where Afghan forces called in air support that tragically resulted in the deaths of 10 Afghan civilians. Karzai, rather than seeking a "mature" discussion of the issues, acted reflexively and issued a decree barring Afghan forces from asking "for the foreigners' planes for carrying out operations on our homes and villages."

His unfair and irresponsible characterization that "foreigners" are the threat to the Afghan population, and that it is "foreigners" who wage war on Afghan homes, threatens to weaken the coalition that has helped build Afghanistan's capacity to secure its future.

Back in the coalition capitals, the perception is that not only is the international community not wanted, but that our troops, who fight side by side with Afghans, may be prohibited from taking actions to defend themselves. Karzai's statement comes a little over a month after his own chief of staff, Abdul Khurram, told international media that "the world needs us more than we need them."

This is a recipe for failure when populations are already on edge over stories of infiltrator attacks and the Afghan National Security Forces' inability to take over on its own. Nations have remained engaged in Afghanistan despite an ever increasing lack of support by their populations.

Statements like those from the Afghan palace could trigger an end to not just military aid but, in times of severe budget austerity, development assistance as well. In short, this is not the narrative Karzai wants. There are too many in the West who would be all too willing to call his bluff and leave him and the Afghan people on their own.

As difficult as the challenges with the international community may appear to be now, the tests of a reconciliation process will prove equally, if not more, daunting.

Afghanistan needs Karzai the statesman: the Karzai who can work with both the international community and the Afghan people, not just play one against the other. This is Karzai's charge for the final year of his presidency. Failure may mean putting peace much further out of reach of the Afghan people who have already suffered so much for so long.

Filed under: Afghanistan • Karzai
soundoff (16 Responses)
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  7. Sam

    There is an interesting article at International Policy Digest about how Karzai’s policies are not only alienating the coalition forces, but also undermining the nation’s chance at a stable future:

    March 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  8. Omeed

    As mentioned Karzei have one of the most difficult Jobs in the world but somewhere he is not only to blame!

    Almost two third of the aid money flow through outside Afghan Government. This mean if there is corruption then both are responsible. Karzei for not able to convince the international community and international community by not taking steps on their organisations involved in corruption. So, somewhere Karzei has a point. He is been blamed for corrupt government while international community themselves involved in corruption.

    Furthermore, Afghanistan is not just Kabul and the some of the big cities. Its larger then that. Karzei know the sentiment of afghan people living in the villages. Afghans have a bad experiences with airstrikes not only after 2001 but from 80ies when Russians were ruthlessly striking Afghan villages and killing innocent people. As elections are coming Karzei somehow need more support of these people. But apart from his election stunts, it's better to reduce airstrikes because It kills just innocent people.

    With prisoners it's the same old story. Afghans have bad experience with prisoners under Soviet Union invasion. Karzei is just trying not to fall in repeat with what soviet union and afghan government did in 80ies.

    All in all international community will be as much responsible as karzei if Afghanistan falls again in the hand of extremist. So let's not Blame only Karzei for his weird behavior!

    February 21, 2013 at 4:50 am | Reply
  9. Megan

    Suspect Karzai has a very small lead in credibility over Mullah Omar in Washington these days. And, he knows that. Further, guy hasn't taken a proper vacation in 12 years and has had to deal with 15 COMISAFs, and commensurate amounts of UNSRSGs, US/UK/etc Ambassadors ... maybe one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Too bad he won't announce his successor for 2014 elections until last minute ... sooner he does, better for Afghanistan. But leaves him powerless once he does ...

    February 20, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  10. Ronald Grey

    'Winning Global Peace Through Afghanistan'

    February 20, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  11. Pete

    How bout a Karzai that doesn't backstab or says one thing to you and another to your enemy like he's done in the past..How he smiles when getting that foriegn aid check than can't wait to get you out of the country,no we don't need anybody like that snake that'll turn on anyone at the blink of an eye,pure snake,pure evil!!

    February 20, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  12. George Patton

    We need Hamid Karzai with BALLS
    We need Hamid Karzai who can pull triggers on Al Qaeda bosses
    We need Hamid Karzai with teeth who can bite on ass of Pakistanis

    February 20, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • Bangash

      George this is not you as you do mot talk sensless things. You know Afghanistan and Pakistan are victims in US wars for global domination. Karzai since begining crying of corruption by international community in funds meant for the reconstruction od Afghanistan. Trillions of dollars so for spent would have changed the face of Afghanistan and even Talibans would have never hesitated in appreciating Americans for proving the best friends of Afghans in their hours of need. Today after 12 years occupation who is where and why this George you must asses and understand where one should bite at who's ass?

      February 21, 2013 at 5:27 am | Reply
      • George Patton-2

        Sorry Bangash, I never posted that stupid statement above, so please just ignore it. The Russians left the Afghan Communist leader Najibullah in office in 1989, only to be overthrown by the Muhedjaddin three years later. We need to allow the Afghans to decide their own future!

        February 21, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
      • BANGASH

        Thanks George Patton 2 for clarification. You are absolutely right in saying that Afghan should decide their fate on there own.

        February 22, 2013 at 1:27 am |

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