Could it be time to take Karzai's words and actions at face value, and give him what he appears to want?
Perhaps he had already – with his frequent allegations of war crimes against US soldiers and hints that the country would be better off with the Taliban integrated into the government than with US soldiers remaining. But his government's performance in the past few days has demonstrated a monumental level of contempt and perhaps even hatred for his chief foreign backer, whose soldiers have maintained Karzai's control of the capital and whose funding keeps his government, such as it is, flush enough to pay its bills.
On Saturday, Karzai's government distributed a dossier of pictures and videos purporting to demonstrate a US war crime, the sort of decontextualized pictures and videos of broken bodies and wailing mourners at funerals that are often offered up by the Taliban as evidence of American evil. In fact, as The New York Times reported, most of the pictures and videos appear to have been gleaned from Taliban websites. And it gets worse from there.
The allegations and supposed evidence for the aftermath of a NATO airstrike on a village in Parwan Province, an area filled with Taliban fighters, on Jan. 15. The US military has insisted that the strike was at the behest of the Afghan Army, who had soldiers under heavy fire from Taliban positions in two village compounds. The US acknowledges that civilians, including two children, died in the strike, but insists the action was necessary – with the lives of dozens of Afghan soldiers and a handful of American advisers at stake. One American and one Afghan soldier were killed in the action.
But that's not how Karzai's people see it. The Times reports:
By contrast, the Afghan commission appointed by Mr. Karzai to investigate the raid described the action as primarily American, with roughly eight hours of indiscriminate and unprovoked bombing followed by a house-to-house rampage by American soldiers. The commission has said that it can prove that 12 civilians were killed, and that there were indications of two to five additional civilian deaths.
“Villagers on the streets and even inside their houses were shot,” said Abdul Satar Khawasi, a member of Parliament from the area who led the investigation. “Ten houses were destroyed.”
... But at least two of the images distributed in the dossier could not have shown casualties from the Wazghar strikes, because the photos are more than three years old.
One was taken at the funeral of victims of a NATO airstrike in northern Afghanistan in 2009, which killed at least 70 civilians. It was distributed by Agence France-Presse and Getty Images and published in The Times on Sept. 5, 2009, along with an article about the airstrike. The origins of the second misrepresented photograph are murkier. It shows the bodies of two boys wrapped in burial shrouds, and has been used for years on websites assailing civilian deaths in American drone strikes in Pakistan.
Yet on Saturday, the Karzai government doubled down with a press conference that included some of the villagers whose innocent friends and relatives were allegedly killed. It was an "oops" moment for the prosecution, as Stars and Stripes reports.
On Sunday, the Afghan government organized a news conference with men who said they were from the area north of Kabul where the clash took place. One man, Alif Shah Ahmadzai, said that he did not witness the fighting itself but that his cousins had been killed. He accused the Times of “spreading lies.”
When confronted with the photo that was demonstrably published in 2009 , the men heatedly insisted that they knew the people at the funeral depicted in the picture. “I can take the dead bodies out of their graves, and if I was wrong I should be hanged,” Ahmadzai told reporters assembled at a government press center.
What's going on here? Karzai and his allies have been refusing to sign a security agreement that would allow US and other NATO combat soldiers to remain in the country beyond the end of this year, when their current mandate runs out. While Karzai constantly expresses skepticism that foreign troops are of any value in accomplishing much but killing civilians, his aid-dependent government is also well aware that without foreign troops, much of the promised civilian aid to Afghanistan will also dry up. Without them, it will be too dangerous to administer, and already rampant pilfering and central government corruption will also grow.
On Facebook and email, I've been chatting with friends – soldiers and civilians both – who served in the war effort in Afghanistan who constantly feel slapped in the face by Karzai's behavior. That anger has finally filtered out to the US Congress, which last week slashed civilian aid for Afghanistan in the current fiscal year to $1.1 billion, down from an initial Obama administration request of $2.1 billion. They also banned any more Pentagon spending on big new infrastructure projects.
The bill also prohibits any US funds being for "the direct personal benefit of the President of Afghanistan," the Washington Post reported, a clear slap at Karzai.
Afghan presidential elections are in April, and Karzai is term-limited out, though he appears to be maneuvering, thanks to the vast political war chest and favors he's accumulated in the past decade, to remain the power behind the scenes. The conventional wisdom is that he's been running a game of chicken with the US - betting that he can extract vast concessions from the US in terms of more cash or weapons for his army by delaying signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement. But the so-called "zero option" for Afghanistan looms ever larger and more attractive for a US, which is slated to spend a further $85 billion there this year.
An interesting contrary take on the "Karzai doesn't really mean it" theory was provided by Marvin Weinbaum earlier this month. He suggests Karzai may honestly believe that the US is a source of instability in the country. And why not?
Could we be reading Karzai incorrectly? Is it possible that rather than trying to call Washington's bluff in a high stakes game, he is prepared for and even eager to have no American military presence in Afghanistan? What if Karzai is in fact persuaded that the United States seeks to perpetuate the Afghan conflict and is conniving with Pakistan to divide the country? Could it be that Karzai has come to believe that Afghanistan has alternatives to its American military dependence that offer greater promise of weakening or possibly ending the insurgency? Has he concluded that with foreign troops gone, he can count on Iran, India, China, and Saudi Arabia for support, and that the chances for a negotiated peace will improve? And might Karzai also be convinced that Afghans are more likely to resolve their internal political differences if freed from U.S. interference? Interestingly, Karzai's views on the BSA and other issues happen to mirror the thinking of the political and military wings of Afghanistan's Hezb-i-Islami. Arguably, Karzai has wittingly or unwittingly aligned himself with this radical Islamic party.
Hezb-i-Islami is the party and militia of notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. His group has been a major force in the insurgency since 2001, and often aligned itself with the Taliban. But it has also shown a willingness to reach agreements with the Afghan government on one condition: the full withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.
Perhaps Hekmatyar is even sincere. Either way, after a decade of war, the US seems to have no more understanding of Afghan politics than it did when the war started. It's not even clear if the marginal returns of the war effort are "diminishing" anymore.
So why not take Karzai's words and actions at face value, and give him what he appears to want?