Obama and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai during a White House meeting

The White House

Obama and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai during a White House meeting

An Afghan Game of Chicken

President Obama and his administration are clearly frustrated with Hamid Karzai, the mercurial Afghan president. That was undoubtedly the real reason behind a recent story in The New York Times that “revealed” Obama is considering a “zero option” in Afghanistan, or leaving no U.S. troops behind at all after 2014, even for the planned “trained, advise and assist” mission. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes floated precisely the same option to reporters back in January. This time, Obama’s team sent a strident reminder to Karzai that if he doesn’t cooperate, an angry Obama may just turn Afghanistan into Iraq, departing from the country lock, stock and barracks.

In truth, there is little chance of this happening, despite the obvious game of chicken going on between Washington and Kabul now in fitful negotiations over a bilateral security agreement that will govern the shape of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014. (The Afghans say the talks are suspended; the Americans say there is a “range of consultations” still going on.)

First of all, for this U.S. president, Afghanistan is nothing like Iraq. Iraq was always, to Obama, a “dumb” war; a conflict that never should have been fought. Afghanistan is, by contrast, the war that candidate Obama insisted in 2008 should be America’s focus, and one that has fully become President Obama’s war since then. Through most of the 2000s after 9/11, Afghanistan had been President George W. Bush’s neglected stepchild, as he and his administration obsessed over Saddam Hussein. It was Obama who, in 2009, reclaimed ownership of Afghanistan, launching his own “surge,” hiring and firing his commanding generals with Lincolnesque alacrity, and ultimately assembling a nearly 350,000-strong Afghan fighting force.

So Obama’s got a lot at stake. Despite appointing a Defense secretary who never supported his Afghan surge — “It’s a huge mistake to get bogged down with over 100,000 American troops,” Chuck Hagel told me in an interview in late 2010 — it’s difficult to imagine that Obama is simply going to let this one go as he did Iraq, a war he was never vested in. It’s more likely the president will find a way to finesse tricky issues such as legal immunity for U.S. soldiers in a way that even administration officials admit he didn’t try very hard to do in Iraq.

And the stakes are high indeed. A trip to Afghanistan in mid-May, just as the fighting season was getting under way, revealed major deficiencies in the multi-billion-dollar effort to build the Afghan National Security Forces, even though the ANSF are already about ten times the size of the Taliban forces. Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force under Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said in an interview in Kabul that the U.S.-NATO plan to train, advise and assist the ANSF will take at least until 2018 to complete. Carter said the U.S. and NATO “will need to supply the Afghans [with] air support, certainly, counter-IED support, logistic support” and other areas “where their capabilities are not at the level where they need to be at.” He added that the ANSF was still falling short in effective leadership; command and control; logistics and medical evacuation; training its personnel effectively; and integrating the army’s warfare strategy with the Afghan police and central and provincial government agencies.

That assessment was largely endorsed in an interview with the Afghan army chief of staff, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi.  Though he evinced confidence against the Taliban, Karimi acknowledged that he would need U.S. military assistance well after the end of 2014. “We still need their help and support maybe for another five to 10 years,” Karimi told me.

Asked whether he endorsed the timetable set out by Carter and Karimi, Pentagon press secretary George Little told Defense One: “We still expect the ANSF to need assistance and support for some time to come to address specific capability gaps and to strengthen security ministries. These gaps include the ability of the ANSF to operate and sustain some of the more complex and technologically advanced capabilities that will be fielded, such as logistics, air support and artillery.” 

Obama, obviously, knows his own Defense Department’s assessment, just he as knows the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. So does Karzai. And neither man can afford to fail: in Obama’s case, to save his legacy; in Karzai’s, to save his behind. So despite denials from the administration that the president is merely posturing, what is probably going on between the two leaders now is precisely that: a game of huffing and bluffing as a way of gaining leverage.

Over the past decade Karzai has played a clever game of regularly fulminating against Washington as a way of rallying support at home and neutralizing charges that he is an American stooge, even as he accepts actual bags of CIA money and scads of other U.S. aid. And there’s no question Karzai wants U.S. military support well into the future; the Afghan president had previously broken confidentiality in the talks to disclose that he’d like the Americans to move into no fewer than nine Afghan bases after 2014. But then, in June, Karzai erupted in rage after the Americans appeared to allow Taliban representatives in Doha to refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the country used to be known under Taliban rule, presenting themselves as a government in exile. Washington also fumbled the rollout of the Taliban talks by announcing they would start bilaterally, cutting Karzai out. That’s when Karzai suspended the negotiations on the bilateral security agreement with the Americans.

Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, said in an interview shortly before the blowup over the Taliban talks that the president is committed to a U.S. presence in Afghanistan post-2014, but “there are a variety of factors we need to take into account,” including an assessment of the ANSF and the run-up to the 2014 election, when Karzai will be replaced. Rhodes added: “We are waiting until we feel like these different pieces fit together such that the president can make a decision.” Administration officials say the target date for completion of the talks is this fall, a year after they began. The closer they get to that date, of course, the less sway a lame-duck Karzai may have, even as he tries to set up an anointed successor.

But  a recent report co-authored by Marine Gen. John Allen, Obama’s former top commander in Afghanistan, and Michele Flournoy, his former top Pentagon policy official, concluded that continuing to prolong the talks over America’s post-2014 presence is risky. “We favor stating the rough contours of an American force soon,” said the report, published by the Center for a New American Security and also co-authored by Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings.

The authors also cautioned the U.S. and NATO “against accelerating disengagement prior to 2014 and under-resourcing their commitment to Afghanistan after 2014.” On July 11, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, also urged Obama to make a decision soon. America’s NATO allies, Corker argued, were mostly waiting on the administration before committing troops for the planned train, advise and assist mission, even as the alliance is working on a “concept of operation.”

“Our allies are going to have difficulty provisioning if we wait much longer,” Corker said.  “I’m telling you this continued looking at our navel, trying to make a decision, having competing forces at the White House is hurting us. It’s hurting our efforts in Afghanistan. It’s hurting our military, and it’s hurting our allies.”

But the game of chicken goes on, even as it grows more dangerous.

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