As U.S. assesses Afghan war, Karzai a question mark

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 12:00 AM

KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai had heard enough.

For more than an hour, Gen. David H. Petraeus, U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and other top Western officials in Kabul urged Karzai to delay implementing a ban on private security firms. Reconstruction projects worth billions of dollars would have to be shuttered, they maintained, if foreign guards were evicted.

Sitting at the head of a glass-topped, U-shaped table in his conference room, Karzai refused to budge, according to two people with direct knowledge of the late October meeting. He insisted that Afghan police and soldiers could protect the reconstruction workers, and he dismissed pleas for a delay.

As he spoke, he grew agitated, then enraged. He told them that he now has three "main enemies" - the Taliban, the United States and the international community.

"If I had to choose sides today, I'd choose the Taliban," he fumed.

After a few more parting shots, he got up and walked out of the wood-paneled room.

The riposte, and the broader fight over private security contractors, prompted deep alarm among senior U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington. The Obama administration had been trying for the better part of a year to cast aside earlier disputes and make nice with Karzai. But it clearly was not working. Eikenberry told colleagues at the embassy that the relationship had hit its lowest point in years.

As President Obama and his national security team assess the war this week, a central element of the discussion will be their difficulties in building a partnership with Karzai. Despite a concerted effort by top diplomats and commanders, the United States has been unable to achieve more than ephemeral bonhomie with the Afghan leader.

"Our relationship with him has become so tortured," said a senior administration official. "We've gone from one crisis every three months to one crisis a month."

There is near-universal agreement among top U.S. officials involved in Afghanistan that Karzai's behavior and leadership have a direct bearing on the outcome of the multinational counterinsurgency mission. But they remain divided about how to improve their ties with him, and whether it is even possible.

Skeptics of the strategy contend his actions, particularly in the six months since the Obama administration started to embrace him as a partner, demonstrate that he cannot be rehabilitated. As a consequence, they maintain that the overall U.S. mission should be scaled back because it is impossible to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign without a steadfast ally in Kabul's presidential palace.

Supporters of the strategy are of two minds. Some argue that the United States should take a harder line with him. Others play down the blow-ups, casting them as normal disagreements among allies in a challenging situation. They express sympathy with his grievances, saying he is simply expressing frustration over years of U.S. mismanagement of the war and a failure to respond adequately to his concerns.

"Karzai is at fault for sparking a crisis, but we're at fault for letting it get there," said the senior official, who like others interviewed requested anonymity to speak frankly about the Afghan leader.

Karzai has been raising objections to private security firms for five years, and he repeatedly sought help from the U.S. government to limit the role of contract guards, "but nobody listened to him," said his chief of staff, Mohammad Umer Daudzai. "If our friends in the international community had helped us from the beginning, we wouldn't have to take such a drastic step."

The Afghan president's disputes with the United States appear to indicate a more fundamental difference over America's war strategy. Karzai insists the principal problem is the infiltration of insurgents from Pakistan. In his view, U.S. forces should be focused on the border, not on operations in Afghan villages, which he regards as too intrusive and disruptive.

"We will fight with you against terrorism. But terrorism is not invading Afghan homes," he said in a recent interview. U.S. troops, he said, should focus instead on "necessary activities along the border."

Americans maintain that the conflict is driven by tribal rivalries, an inequitable distribution of power at the local level and the government's failure to provide even the most basic services. That is why the U.S. solution is a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy to improve security and governance.

In his flare-ups, Karzai "is sending us a message," said a senior U.S. military official. "And that message is, 'I don't believe in counterinsurgency.' "

Angry and misunderstood

The October meeting with Petraeus and Eikenberry was not the first time Karzai had threatened to cast his lot with the Taliban. He did so in a March speech to parliament, an outburst that occurred days after Obama concluded his first presidential trip to Kabul.

Karzai was angry over comments made by then-National Security Adviser James Jones that the Afghan leader was not doing enough to fulfill commitments he had made in his second inaugural address - promises that factored into Obama's decision last year to send 30,000 more troops into the country.

Over the following weeks, White House officials debated whether their get-tough strategy with Karzai - an approach they had taken since Obama took office - was actually backfiring. In April, Obama opted for a different course, bluntly instructing his national security team to treat Karzai with more respect in public.

For a little while, the relationship improved. It was around that time that Karzai learned that the then-commander of coalition forces, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, had decided not to try to oust his half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai from his influential post in Kandahar, despite persistent rumors of corruption and connections to narcotics trafficking.

Karzai forged a closer relationship with McChrystal than he has with any of his predecessors. Shortly after he arrived in Kabul, McChrystal tightened rules on airstrikes in an effort to reduce civilian casualties. When U.S. Marines wanted to push into Marja, a Taliban sanctuary in Helmand province, the general went to Karzai with the plan and said, "Sir, this is for you to approve," according to a person familiar with the exchange.

When McChrystal was summoned back to the White House after a magazine article quoted him and his aides making disrespectful comments about Obama administration officials, Karzai came to the general's defense. It did not help.

When Petraeus arrived in early July as the new commander, he sought to pick up where McChrystal left off. He strongly urged Karzai, at their first meeting, to approve the creation of armed village defense forces, a controversial initiative that McChrystal had nearly persuade Karzai to back. But the Afghan leader responded angrily. He refused to endorse the program and instead lectured Petraeus on Afghan concerns over militias, according the U.S. and Afghan officials familiar with the meeting.

In late July, tensions escalated once again over the arrest of one of Karzai's aides on bribery charges by a member of an Afghan anti-graft task force that works closely with FBI investigators. Karzai quickly ordered the aide released and accused those who arrested him, in a nighttime raid on his house, of using tactics "reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union."

As U.S. diplomats and commanders in Kabul were busy addressing the fallout of that case, he was stewing about another matter: the impunity with which private security contractors operate in his country. In July, a sport-utility vehicle driven by private guards was involved in a collision in Kabul that left one Afghan dead. The incident, which led to a protest and shouts of "Death to America," struck a sensitive nerve for the president.

The next month, he issued a decree ordering the disbanding of all private security forces by the end of the year.

U.S. diplomats assumed he would eventually back down because banning private guards would shut down embassies, stop military supply convoys and force the U.S. Agency for International Development to cease work on reconstruction projects worth billions of dollars.

But the diplomats failed to grasp the depth of his anger - and his belief that the billions in foreign assistance flowing into Afghanistan was causing more harm than good.

"We could have listened to him then," a senior U.S. diplomat said. "But nobody took him seriously."

Firm on contractors

For weeks, the U.S. Embassy and the coalition military headquarters expected Karzai to rescind his order, or at least carve out an exemption large enough for the contractors to barrel through in their armored SUVs.

The president did make revisions, exempting embassy guards and military convoys, but he held firm on the private contractors protecting development workers. He accused them of being behind "blasts and terrorism," and he blamed the U.S. government for funding security firms that "send money to kill people here."

Karzai's stance flummoxed U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington. U.S. military officials tried to determine whether a quid pro quo was driving the decision. Several of Karzai's relatives and political allies have large ownership stakes in private security firms in southern Afghanistan. Even though the order applied to them as well, some appeared to be making plans to adapt to - and profit from - the new rules.

In Uruzgan province, Matiullah Khan, the leader of a powerful militia that has a monopoly on guarding supply convoys and other truck traffic from Kandahar, is making quiet moves to transition his 2,000-man force into a newly created highway police unit. According to Western officials familiar with the issue, he would be made a police general and his men would receive salaries and uniforms.

But, the officials said, it is highly unlikely military contractors and private merchants will stop paying protection fees to Matiullah once his men are members of the police.

"It's a win-win strategy for Matiullah and Karzai," one Western official in southern Afghanistan said. "The president gets to say he's disbanded private security firms, and the warlord, who is his ally, gets richer."

But other than the Matiullah case, U.S. officials could not identify a systematic effort to consolidate business around the president' relatives and allies. The principal motivation seemed to be his deep-seated belief that the billions in reconstruction spending was hurting more than helping.

"We know some projects may be delayed. We know some projects may close down," Daudzai said. "But it's worth it because the other side [retaining private security contractors] is even more dangerous."

No 'stooge'

The standoff was the moment for high-level American diplomacy, but the two men with principal responsibility for civilian engagement with Karzai, Eikenberry and special envoy Richard Holbrooke, have, at best, a fractured relationship with him - and each other. Neither was able to persuade Karzai to relent in their initial discussions with him.

State Department officials sympathetic to Holbrooke accused Eikenberry and his staff of not grasping the issue quickly enough. Embassy officials, in turn, questioned why Holbrooke was not doing more to help.

"The biggest problem in our relationship with Karzai is that we don't have any diplomats who actually have a relationship with him," said a U.S. military official in Kabul.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton eventually was forced to weigh in. Several U.S. officials credit her follow-up intervention with softening his stance.

Karzai finally relented by easing the ban to exempt development firms, but not before the crisis dominated the agenda at the U.S. Embassy and the USAID mission for weeks, pushing aside other business. USAID was forced to work up elaborate contingency plans, an effort one staffer said consumed "thousands of person-hours."

As soon as a compromise was brokered, Karzai lit another fire by saying that the United States should "reduce military operations" and end Special Operations raids, despite indications that U.S. forces have made headway against the Taliban in recent months. Those remarks drew a heated response from Petraeus and once again prompted questions in Kabul and Washington about Karzai's willingness to fix his country.

Asked whether he considers himself a partner with the United States, Karzai said "it depends on how you define a partner in America."

"I will speak for Afghanistan, and I will speak for the Afghan interest, but I will seek that Afghan interest in connection with and together with an American interest and in partnership with America," he said. "In other words, if you're looking for a stooge and calling a stooge a partner, no. If you're looking for a partner, yes."

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