Obama and Karzai: The Odd Couple

by David Isenberg | May 11th, 2010 | |Subscribe

As Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in Washington yesterday for a visit let’s look at Afghanistan. If Presidents Obama and Karzai were a couple they might well be seeing a marriage counselor. There has been much baggage between them in recent months. As diplomats might say, their relationship has been strained; what one might call tough love. Indeed, so much so that President Obama has instructed his national security team to treat Afghan President Hamid Karzai with more public respect. President Obama should remember the old military saying that respect can’t be ordered, only earned.

Just last month Karzai said in a meeting with Afghan lawmakers that he would consider joining the Taliban. Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said some of Karzai’s comments were “troubling” and the White House would re-evaluate whether his trip to Washington would be constructive. Subsequently Karzai denied that he ever made the comments.

Officially, of course, things are getting better. According to the latest Congressionally mandated Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,  released April 28, stability  in Afghanistan is no longer on the decline, and most Afghans believe that despite increased violence, security actually has improved since this time last year. 

The report attributes the 87 percent increase in violence from February 2009 to March 2010 largely to increased U.S., coalition and Afghan national security force activity, particularly into areas where they previously had not operated.

In fact, as USA Today reported, violence is at an all-time high in the 9-year-old war. In the first three months of the year, the number of roadside bombs targeting U.S. service members increased by 16 percent.

The New York Times reports that shootings of Afghan civilians by American and NATO convoys and at military checkpoints have spiked sharply this year, becoming the leading cause of combined civilian deaths and injuries at the hands of Western forces, American officials say.

At least 28 Afghans have been killed and 43 wounded in convoy and checkpoint shootings this year — 42 percent of total civilian deaths and injuries and the largest overall source of casualties at the hands of American and NATO troops, according to statistics kept by the military. While this is not nearly as many as killed by the Taliban the U.S. and NATO forces are, unlike the Taliban, supposed to be protecting Afghan civilians, not killing them.

This is such a problem that a British general proposed granting medals for “courageous restraint” to troops in Afghanistan who avoid deadly force at a risk to themselves.

The future will likely be even more violent as U.S. and Afghan commanders prepare to launch a major offensive in the southern Kandahar province in an attempt to remove the Taliban from one of their strongholds. The U.S. military is also sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

The Pentagon report, which covered the situation on the ground from Oct. 1 to March 31, cites progress in President Barack Obama’s strategy aimed at disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But it offered what a senior defense official speaking on background called a sobering assessment of the conditions on the ground, and a recognition of the importance of what happens within the next six months in determining the direction the operation ultimately will take.

The report cites requirements that international partners have not filled – primarily for trainers and mentors to support development of Afghan security forces, particularly the police force, which lags behind the Afghan army.

Just last Thursday David Sedney, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that not nearly enough trained Afghans are available to take control of key Taliban strongholds such as Marja after the military has pushed out the enemy.  “The number of those civilians . . . who are trained, capable, willing to go into [Taliban-controlled areas] does not match at all demand,” he said.

Despite increased violence, the Pentagon report notes that the downward trend in stability appears to have stemmed, along with Taliban momentum. But it’s far too soon to say the corner has been turned, the official told reporters.

The senior official said, “But the emphasis, I would say, would be very much that after a number of years of things moving in the wrong direction, that has changed.  We are no longer moving in the wrong direction, and there are signs that we’re moving in the right direction.” In other words, things are not as bad as they were. I think that is what they call damning with faint praise.

Indeed, the Pentagon report itself said the offensive waged earlier this year in the Marja region and elsewhere in Helmand achieved only “some success in clearing insurgents from their strongholds.”

As of March 31, about 87,000 U.S. forces were on the ground in Afghanistan, with additional forces to bring that number to 98,000 by August. In addition, 46,500 international forces are serving in Afghanistan, with 38 countries pledging about 9,000 more troops to support operations, tactics and training. As of March 31, 40 percent of those additional troops had arrived in the country.

The costs remain high for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Just yesterday the Pentagon announced the deaths of:

Spc. Jeremy L. Brown, 20, of McMinnville, Tenn., died May 9 at Contingency Outpost Zerok, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using small arms fire.  He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Ky.

Cpl. Kurt S. Shea, 21, of Frederick, Md., died May 10 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.  He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Lance Cpl. Christopher Rangel, 22, of San Antonio, Texas, died May 6 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Capt. Kyle A. Comfort, 27, of Jacksonville, Ala., died May 8 in Helmand province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Benning, Ga.

Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Davis, 19, of Perry, Iowa, died May 7 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Also yesterday IPS reported that although Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s plan for wresting the Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar from the Taliban is still in its early stages of implementation, there are already signs that setbacks and obstacles it has encountered have raised serious doubts among top military officials in Washington about whether the plan is going to work.

The U.S. military still struggles to find ways to ease Afghan concerns about governmental corruption. Yesterday the Washington Post reported on how a plan to empower a large Pashtun tribe in eastern Afghanistan angered a local power broker, provoked a backlash from the Afghan government and was disavowed by the U.S. Embassy.

Yet, as the London Times reports, NATO has taken one of the biggest gambles of its mission in Afghanistan by reluctantly deciding to collaborate with Ahmad Wali Karzai, the notorious power-broker of Kandahar — despite allegations that the half-brother of the President is involved in the drugs trade.

Finally the Washington Post reported that clear tensions exist between McChrystal and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry.

At times their differences over strategy have been public, particularly after two of Eikenberry’s cables to Washington last year were leaked to the news media. The cables warned that McChrystal’s request for new troops might be counterproductive as Karzai was “not an adequate strategic partner.” McChrystal’s staff members were particularly upset that they weren’t made aware of Eikenberry’s position before he sent the cables to Washington, they said in interviews.

Given all this it is no surprise that nobody is expecting anything substantial to happen during President Karzai’s visit. As the Washington Post reports today:

“This is not a trip about deliverables,” such as economic or military agreements, a senior administration official said. Instead, U.S. officials said, they will push Karzai to make good on promises he has made to address government corruption and accountability, and work to influence his plans for a national peace conference late this month.

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