Analysis: Karzai needs U.S. help as much as ever

Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department in Washington, Jan. 10, 2013. Getty

In 2002, Hamid Karzai, the new interim President of Afghanistan, presented himself to his war-torn nation wearing a combination of traditional garments from all over the country.

He covered it all with a Western dress jacket -- keen to put his allies at ease, and to show his fellow Afghans, that he, a Pashtun aristocrat, would represent all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups.

He said he wanted Afghans to stop fighting one another, and to keep the nation together.

Now, 11 years later, Karzai, who was reelected president in a controversial election in 2009, has come again to Washington, older, wiser, smiling less now, but still seeking support.

The U.S. public and Congress are tired of the war, and President Obama wants to bring the troops home. The U.S. has spent north of $600 billion in Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 2,000 Americans have been killed, and thousands more maimed for life. But the war is far from over, and there are signs the Taliban is resurgent.

According to the Pentagon's most recent Congressionally-mandated bi-annual war assessment, Taliban attacks increased one percent from April to September 2012. There have been exploratory peace talks with the Taliban, but U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who the Taliban want to exchange for prisoners in Guantanamo as a good faith gesture to start the negotiations, remains, as he has since June 30, 2009, in Taliban captivity.

The U.S. is negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement with Afghanistan over how many troops will remain in the country after 2014, and over which country will have criminal jurisdiction over the remaining U.S. personnel.

President Karzai wants the U.S. military to stop night raids on Afghan homes; he wants coalition forces, and the Taliban, to stop killing civilians.

Aware that soldiers in the Afghan National Army and police -- hundreds of whom are killed every month -- are not ready to fight alone against insurgents, Karzai wants a U.S. presence in Afghanistan after 2014. He wants funding for an almost non-existent Afghan Air Force, for modern weapons systems and support facilities.

"We are not going anywhere; our commitment to Afghanistan is long term and you (the Taliban) cannot wait us out," Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in November at the Center for New American Policy in Washington.

Karzai may be wondering if that promise will hold if former Republican Senator and Vietnam War veteran, Chuck Hagel, who knows personally the horrors of war, replaces him at the Pentagon. In his first visit to Afghanistan as a member of a Congressional delegation, Hagel told journalists at Bagram on a cold January night in 2002, "We are here for the long term."

But that was then. The U.S. now has about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than double that number.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. George Allen, in charge of coalition forces, has presented President Obama with three options: To keep 6,000, 10,000 or 20,000 troops in country after 2014.

Former Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the only general who President Karzai has truly liked, so much so that he invited him back to Afghanistan for a visit after he was forced to resign in 2010, said in an interview published this week by The New York Times, that the U.S., "had 7,500 (troops) in Afghanistan when I was first stationed there, and 7,500 wouldn't do much."

McChrystal said the U.S. has a responsibility in Afghanistan. In 1979, the U.S. began to supply the Afghan guerrillas, called the Mujahideen, with weapons to help them fight the then-communist Afghan government. The Soviet Union invaded to prop this government up and over the next 10 years, the U.S. and its allies, gave billions of dollars in weapons to the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets. Over a million Afghans died in that war.

"My biggest criticism of all of us," said McChrystal, "is that Afghanistan is a badly abused nation and helping this nation get back on its feet is going to be a long-term, difficult, expensive project. We did incur a certain responsibility. We raised expectations for the 15 million Afghan females, that they might have a different future. We raised expectations of Afghan children that they'd be able to go to school."

The U.S. does have an obligation, not just to prevent al Qaeda from reasserting itself in Afghanistan, but to help the Afghans, for by helping them, and assuring peace in Afghanistan, we help ourselves.

The White House said in a recent statement that the U.S. welcomes its continued transition in Afghanistan, and shares a vision of an enduring partnership between the two nations. Transition is another word for exit strategy.

Americans have long complained about corruption in Afghanistan, and Karzai doesn't deny it is still entrenched. In December, in a nationally televised address, he called it "a reality, a bitter reality."

He spoke of the small bribes that are part of daily life, but he also accused the U.S. of pouring large sums of money into the pockets of officials and their relatives to try and influence the government.

In 1973, when I first visited Afghanistan, it was one of the poorest countries in the world, as it is today, but I never saw a child begging. They do today.

Afghanistan is corrupt, in part because of 35 years of war. But Washington did help fuel the culture of corruption when CIA officials came in 2001 with suitcases of money, and later when billions of dollars were brought in to help rebuild the country. The huge sums of cash tempted people who had little, and political leaders, businessmen and warlords raked in millions.

There have been no clear indications that Karzai himself is corrupt. He never fought with the Mujahideen -- this has been a part of his image problem among common Afghans. He was, however, deputy foreign minister in the Mujahideen government that was in power from 1992 - 1996. He may have later worked with the Taliban, who in 2010 he called -- to much criticism in the West -- the "sons of the soil of Afghanistan."

It is true. The Taliban have long been a part of Afghan culture, living in mosques, performing prayers, presiding over births and funerals. He lamented in an interview in 2008 that today's Taliban, young men programmed in Islamic schools in Pakistan, are cut off from their Afghan roots.

When they came to power in 1996, they asked Karzai's father, Abdul Karzai, once a Member of Parliament, to be ambassador to the U.N. He said no. He was assassinated after praying at a mosque in Quetta, Pakistan in 1999.

The Taliban do not consider Karzai the legitimate president of Afghanistan. He survived an assassination attempt himself in Kandahar in 2005. One of his four brothers, Wali, who was widely considered corrupt, was killed by one of his closest commanders in 2011.

Former Mujahideen president Burhanaddin Rabbani, who Karzai appointed head of the Afghan High Peace Council, was killed by a suicide bomber (Video) in 2011.

Now, as he visits Washington, President Karzai still wants to serve his country and preserve its traditions, and, he wants to stay alive.

Jere Van Dyk is a CBS terrorism consultant and the author of "Captive, My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban," Times Books, 2010.

  • Jere Van Dyk

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