The Complex

Karzai Pulls The Rug On The U.S. -- Again

The U.S. installed Hamid Karzai as the president of Afghanistan more than a decade ago, and has consulted with him regularly since in their up-and-down relationship during 12 years of war. The latest reward: Karzai told tribal leaders Thursday he doesn't trust the U.S., and suggested the signing of a long-sought security agreement he reached with senior U.S. officials should be punted to the next Afghan head of state.

The comments came at the start of a loya jirga, an assembly of some 2,500 Afghan tribal leaders that could scuttle the bilateral security agreement Karzai has reached with the U.S. As part of it, President Obama sent a letter to Karzai on Wednesday, offering regret that Afghan civilians were killed in the war and assurances that in the future, U.S. troops will not enter Afghan homes for military operations "except under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to life and limb of U.S. nationals."

Karzai seeking those assurances had raised questions whether a deal could be reached. Still, even with them covered in Obama's letter, Karzai pulled his best impression of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, telling tribal leaders the security deal should not be signed until 2014, after an election to replace him is held. He did advocate the tribal elders approving the deal, but fired a shot across the bow at Americans in the process.

"My trust with America is not good. I don't trust them and they don't trust me," Karzai said, according to reports from Kabul. "During the past 10 years I have fought with them and they have made propaganda against me."

The decision immediately complicates the U.S.'s already uncertain future in Afghanistan. One U.S. official in Afghanistan told Foreign Policy he finds it hard to believe that Karzai's replacement will be able to sign the security agreement as one of his first acts in office, considering the mixed feelings in Afghanistan about the U.S. presence there. That would be a major problem, considering the U.S.'s 2014 deadline to withdraw thousands more combat forces from the war zone.

"It just doesn't make sense from the Afghan perspective," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The next president will... want to do all he can to show Afghan sovereignty. Being so closely tied to the U.S. via the [agreement] would seriously undermine that, particularly as a first major initiative."

The draft agreement, posted online by the Afghan government, calls for a residual force - likely to be about 10,000 troops -- to remain after 2014. Bases would be in nine locations: Kabul, Bagram, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar, Gardez, Jalabad, Shindand and Helmand province. It also requires the U.S. to continue funding the Afghan National Security Forces, and a key provision in which U.S. troops will be granted immunity from prosecution by the Afghan government. Iraq's unwillingness to grant similar protections led the U.S. to pull nearly all of its troops in 2011, setting the stage for an explosion in sectarian violence there this year.

Given all that, why would Karzai pass the buck? Analysts suggest the Afghan president wants a secure place in Afghan history, and may see more negatives than positives for his legacy among the Afghan people in signing on the dotted line.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said it appears that Karzai wants to share the political burden for the decisions he is faced with, rather than executing them himself. Not signing the security agreement now also gives him leverage over the U.S. in how the election to replace him plays out, O'Hanlon said. It also creates the possibility that the Afghan government could demand more concessions later.

"I always thought he would be inclined to draw it out, and this may be one more effort to do just that," O'Hanlon said. "He's always willing to put in caveats and exceptions and note his skepticism of the United States."

The best thing the U.S. can do at this point is act as though the agreement has been reached in principle, and adjust course later as necessary, O'Hanlon said. Karzai's comments complicate the future, but it also serves as affirmation that he truly is stepping down as president, he added.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said Karzai may hope to continue in Kabul in an unofficial "president-emeritus" role, and doesn't want to be seen as being too close to U.S. leaders. U.S. officials were likely hoping he'd sign the security agreement sooner rather than later, he said, but it's unlikely they'll be shocked by his change in tune.

"We've seen a lot of zig-zags in the pattern going foward," said Barno, who interacted with Karzai from 2003 to 2005 while leading coalition operations across the country. "I'm sure they were disappointed to see this, but I'm not sure they were entirely surprised."

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The Complex

The War In Afghanistan Could Be Lost This Week

The U.S. has sustained more than 2,200 combat deaths and burned through hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan since 2001, when U.S. forces were first sent to fight al Qaeda and topple the Taliban-led government providing it sanctuary. But after all that bloodshed and treasure lost, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan may soon take a turn for the worse, strategically - and the results could mean the difference between winning and losing the war.

Just as officials with the U.S.-led military coalition in Kabul say they have trained the Afghan military well enough to stand on its own two feet in combat, President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials are due to present this week a bilateral security agreement to thousands of Afghan tribal leaders for their approval. They will do so at a loya jirga, an Afghan assembly beginning Thursday that could approve or scuttle the deal.

The agreement, reached Wednesday between Karzai and Secretary of State John Kerry, includes provisions that will allow the U.S. to protect its troops from prosecution by Afghanistan's justice system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the deal will be approved by the loya jirga. And therein lies the rub: Unless Karzai can corral enough support in his last full year in office to hold the line on his plan with the U.S., the future of Afghanistan remain in doubt. (Well, even more in doubt than it would have been without the deal.)

The loya jirga's views are not officially binding, but Karzai has said repeatedly that the tribal elders there will decide some of the most controversial pieces of the new security agreement, most notably whether U.S. forces will be granted prosecutorial immunity. Iraq's unwillingness to do the same resulted in the U.S. pulling all of its troops from that country in 2011, setting the stage for widespread bloodshed there this year.

One U.S. official in Kabul told Foreign Policy that Afghanistan is at a crossroads. Not only is it close to shutting the book on more than a decade of U.S. combat operations, it also must grapple with a history in which previous Afghan heads of state, like former King Zahir Shah, have been accused of being too close to outside forces. That makes it difficult for Karzai, installed by the U.S. as president in 2001, to rally support.

Nevertheless, deadlines loom. The U.S. has withdrawn thousands of forces from Afghanistan, and eyes a long-term presence of about 10,000. That would be less than 10 percent of the force that was on the ground in 2010 and 2011, after President Obama ordered in late 2009 a short-term surge of forces to fight Taliban fighters and create space and time for the Afghan National Security Forces to grow. He did so while announcing that all U.S. combat forces would be removed from the battlefield by the end of 2014, a split-the-difference decision that infuriated some Americans for putting more troops in harm's way, and others for telegraphing the U.S. strategy.

The 2014 deadline does have some value, however. One U.S. official in Kabul monitoring the politics of the situation said it serves as a "political forcing function," shoving the Afghan and U.S. government toward reaching a long-term deal, even after widespread outrage in Afghanistan over the use of air strikes, night raids and other muscular tactics.

"It is forcing all parties to confront critical issues that are needed in place for the country's long-term stability and our mutual national security interests," the official in Kabul said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who oversaw the U.S. diplomatic effort in Kabul in 2011 and 2012, told Foreign Policy that the U.S. isn't losing the war the war in Afghanistan right now, but must step up to make sure that doesn't become the case.

"It's going to require U.S. leadership," he said. "If we're not engaged, no one is going to be engaged. If we're not committed, these agreements will be ink on paper. I worry about the lack of sustained administration engagement at a high level about Afghanistan."

Nevertheless, even the U.S. government deciding to sign the bilateral security agreement and continue ponying up money for the war effort does not guarantee success, Crocker said. It also will hinge, he said, on there being free and fair election to replace Karzai in 2014 and the U.S. finding a greater degree of common ground with neighboring Pakistan, which is believed to harbor senior Taliban leaders.

"With all those ‘ifs,' if they come out right, I think you would see an Afghanistan on a slow, painful and uneven route to a sustainable security in a pluralistic society. I just worry that we're setting the stage for a repeat from a pretty horrible past," Crocker said, a reference to the civil war in the 1990s that set the stage for the Taliban taking control of Kabul and al Qaeda establishing terrorist training camps in the countryside.

The fight on the ground
U.S. military officials, for their part, defend the advances they have watched Afghan forces make in the last few years. To be fair, there are many. The Afghan National Army now runs independent operations all over the country, and has grown to include more than 200,000 soldiers. They typically focus on rural regions of the country that are more dangerous.

The Afghan police, meanwhile, focus on manning security checkpoints on Afghanistan's major roads and safeguarding major cities like Kabul and Kandahar. Both are seen now as mostly safe, despite spectacular coordinated attacks occasionally launched by enemy fighters.

Violence also has broadly plummeted in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which have historically been among the most violent, a senior U.S. military official in Kabul told Foreign Policy. Former Taliban strongholds like Marjah and Garmser in Helmand province have achieved a level of peace that villagers and U.S. forces deployed there alike questioned was every possible.

Other regions of the country have seen an uptick in violence, however, the senior U.S. military official said. The eastern part of the country has seen a "marginal" increase in insurgent attacks, and quiet areas in the northern and western parts of the country have seen more bloodshed, as well. The insurgency's gains were acknowledged in the Pentagon's most recent report on Afghanistan to Congress, which said it had "consolidated gains in some of the rural areas in which it has traditionally held power."

One apparent example would be Sangin in Helmand province, which was the site of fierce fighting this summer as a mix of Taliban fighters, drug lords and other elements launched a series of fierce attacks against Afghan forces. In some cases, Afghan soldiers reportedly refused to leave their bases unless it was absolutely necessary, ceding ground to enemy fighters.

Army Brig. Gen. Michael Wehr, who oversees U.S. engineer units in Afghanistan, acknowledged it will be difficult for the Afghan military to maintain control of the whole country, including some areas where the U.S. spent millions of dollars building facilities for Afghan forces. The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is built on the notion that the military must clear an area of enemy fighters, hold that territory, than build on the efforts. But U.S. and Afghan forces have not always been able to do things in that order, Wehr told Foreign Policy.

"There is, in fact, a large number of facilities that are in the exact right spot and are being maintained today," Wehr said. "But there are some locations that are more of a risk than others. Some of that is that we clear, hold, build, but we're in fact trying to build where we have not quite cleared, and we're barely holding."

The fight this summer also was complicated by the staggering number of casualties the Afghan military and police force took, as they ventured out more and more without their own. More than 100 personnel were killed some weeks in combat, and dozens in many others, leading the Pentagon to estimate in its most recent report to Congress that Afghan casualties had spiked 79 percent in a year, while coalition deaths had dropped 59 percent in the same time period.

Like their coalition counterparts, Afghan forces are killed primarily by improvised explosive devices buried in the roads, walls and fields by insurgent fighters. Coalition forces are training the Afghans to handle the attacks better, but they do not have the same mine-resistant vehicles the U.S. uses. Instead, they rely mainly on souped-up Ford Rangers, which provide rugged transportation, but less protection.

But there are signs of progress, Wehr said. Afghan forces actually are better at finding IEDs than coalition troops, relying on tips from villagers and their superior knowledge of the country and its people.

"They are learning the hard way, there is no doubt about that. Discipline, procedures," Wehr told Foreign Policy. "But they actually have a better find and clear rate that we do, and that gets into the intelligence piece, in which they clearly do better than we do in their own culture. They are succeeding in those areas."

Several U.S. officials in Kabul told Foreign Policy that the U.S. won't "win" in Afghanistan by 2014, and it needs to accept that. Rather, coalition hope to hand the mission over to the Afghan forces at a time when they can maintain at least a stalemate with the Taliban and other extremist groups, creating space for a possible political deal to be reached between the insurgent group and the government later. There is no danger that the Taliban has the ability anymore to mount an attack large enough to take over the government, but they will continue to launch attacks and strong-arm civilians to assert their presence, they said.

"Insurgencies typically end in a political accommodation between the counter-insurgent and the insurgent," one senior military official in Kabul said. "The fighting is a contest of wills to win the populace, and it is designed to create time and space to reach that political accommodation. I think that's where we are."

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