March 28, 2013

Stephen Biddle is a professor at George Washington University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Both were in Afghanistan this month on a trip sponsored by the U.S. and NATO military commands.

For most Americans, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s words and actions are difficult to understand and hard to accept. He often seems ungrateful for the efforts of U.S. troops, cavalier in his ideas of how to change the Afghan-NATO military campaign and irresolute in his commitment to the war effort. He has suggested that our troops stay out of Afghan villages even before Afghan forces are ready to handle security there. He has chastised NATO soldiers for occasional, and clearly unintentional, mistakes that led to civilian casualties. He has withheld a promise to give our troops legal immunity if they stay in his country beyond 2014. He has even equated the U.S. role in prolonging the war with that of the Taliban.

We are among those who wish Karzai would stop this behavior. He struck a more positive tone this week during a news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry, but it would be a mistake to assume that the problems have been fixed. U.S. relations with the Afghan president will sustain further ups and downs, and the only way to reduce the severity and frequency of the low points is by understanding what provokes them.

Karzai is not, as some have claimed, crazy or a fool. He is confused. In his view, the world’s only superpower is surely able to defeat a ragtag force of Taliban guerrillas — if it really wanted to. In his view, the United States could surely force Pakistan to stop harboring Afghan Taliban insurgents — if it really wanted to. Yet Washington does neither. On the contrary, Karzai watches Americans look the other way while their logistical contracts are siphoned off to support the Taliban (albeit less so lately), and he sees Americans give billions of dollars in aid each year to their ostensible Pakistani tormentors. Karzai concludes that there must be some hidden reason for the apparent contradictions.

Karzai, of course, heard President Obama reinforce the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan by 30,000 troops in March 2009 and by another 30,000 that December. Yet Karzai then heard that Vice President Biden suggested,in the same month as Obama’s speech, that the United States did not have a “counterinsurgency” strategy to preserve the Afghan government or a long-term commitment to the countryand that America’s only real interest in the region was to hunt al-Qaeda terrorists, not to defeat the Taliban. More recently, U.S. officials have suggested that the Taliban is not America’s enduring enemy and that, while militants who attack U.S. territory are terrorists, those who strike on Afghan soil are not.

These challenges did not originate in the Obama administration. In 2001 President George W. Bush pledged U.S. support to Karzai, a leader he called a hero. But in 2003 the Bush administration shifted its attention to Iraq and handed off the defense of this hero to a polyglot multinational coalition. Karzai naturally wondered whether Americans believed what they said about the importance of his government’s survival.

Many of these apparent contradictions are unintended byproducts of U.S. efforts to craft a nuanced policy. The United States has security interests in Afghanistan, but they are limited ones. The chief threat to U.S. security in the region is al-Qaeda, but it would be hard to defeat al-Qaeda if its Taliban allies overthrew the Afghan government and took over important parts of the country. Too narrow and intense a focus on the Taliban misses the big picture of America’s underlying interests; by contrast, too little emphasis on defeating the Taliban overlooks a critical means of securing the ultimate end.

To resolve these conflicting incentives, the Obama administration has sought a policy of balance and moderation. These, however, can easily become self-contradiction, confusion and muddle unless the components are carefully crafted and presented. Obama is capable of presenting subtle, nuanced positions on complex issues — his 2008 campaign speech on race relations is a defining example — but he has devoted remarkably little time to discussing his Afghanistan policy in sustained, direct public communication. The result has been mixed and confusing messaging, especially since some White House officials have, occasionally, publicly dissented from that policy.

This is not to absolve Karzai. He often lets emotional impulse preempt analysis, and his outbursts frequently elevate his domestic political interests above the needs of his alliance with the United States or of the war effort.

Yet America shares some of the blame for the public divisions between Washington and Kabul. Our inconsistencies and reversals have interacted with Karzai’s various shortcomings to create an ever more difficult relationship.

That does not change the fact that Karzai and the rest of the Afghan people know they need us and will ultimately try to work with us. We need to keep perspective, and a thick skin, when engaging in this relationship, as Kerry has done. Equally important, we need to get our own message and policy straight. If we do not, we may discover that Karzai’s successor will find us just as confusing as Karzai has.

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