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Karzai’s Commitment Examined Amid Fresh Tensions With U.S.

August 30, 2010 at 5:56 PM EDT
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai sharply criticized coalition strategy over the weekend, saying it "has been ineffective apart from causing civilian casualties." The criticism came after new reports surfaced of corruption inside his government and spikes in coalition deaths across Afghanistan. Ray Suarez gets two views.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on all this, we’re joined by two people who have been closely following the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, who is now president of the Center for a New American Security, and Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He was on the staff of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

Lieutenant Colonel Nagl, we have had back-to-back days of heavy casualties in Afghanistan. Is that rise in casualties similar to the one we experienced in Iraq during the surge?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL (RET.), president, Center for a New American Security: I think there are some similarities, in that we have forces moving into places they haven’t about in before. We have more forces on the ground than we have ever had before.

But I think it’s important to point out that, grievous as these losses were over the weekend, the total casualties, U.S. casualties for Afghanistan in August to date are 49. We lost 66 last month in July. So, this has been a particularly bad weekend, but not a particularly bad month in what is shaping up to be a very difficult year, as U.S. forces ramp up.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this similar to the way we were told, Brian Katulis, during the Iraq surge that things would get worse before they would get better?

BRIAN KATULIS, senior fellow, Center for American Progress: I think it is. And I think the people that the U.S. forces are facing over there are an insurgency. And they don’t like foreign troops. And, unfortunately, what we are seeing in Afghanistan is that a large number of Afghans don’t support the presence of foreign troops and I think we are going to see more of this as more troops actually position themselves in the neighborhoods and communities inside of Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it tempting, but should we step back from comparing Iraq to Afghanistan at this stage in the game?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, I think it’s really a false comparison. It’s not even apples and oranges. It is like apples and bicycles. One country is largely urban. Another is largely rural. I think Afghanistan is very decentralized, lacks a lot of cohesive structures that the Iraqi government did have under Saddam Hussein. So, I think the — the challenges are fundamentally different. And I would add to it, in Afghanistan, we have an area in Pakistan neighboring Afghanistan where insurgents actually use that territory to strike against the Afghan government.

RAY SUAREZ: So, after all these years of standing up institutions, we still pale in comparison to what Iraq had after Saddam?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: I wouldn’t go I think that that is actually probably true. I agree with — with Brian’s statement that there are many differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. But what is what is really hurting us, I think, in Afghanistan has been years of neglect of that war while we focused on Iraq, starting from a much lower base. And so we’re working now finally to build an Afghan army, an Afghan government, Afghan institutions that in time will be able to take over responsibility for the country’s governance and security themselves.

And this, I think, is the one way where Iraq and Afghanistan are a reasonable comparison. That is that, in Iraq, we are now able to increasingly hand responsibility off to Iraqi forces and Iraqi government. We are building toward that date in Afghanistan. I think it’s still several years away.

RAY SUAREZ: But here we are, with charges of epidemic corruption, Karzai charging that American strategy has not really killed insurgents as much as killed Afghan civilians. Are we dealing with a head of state that sees his own country the way we do as we fight the war?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: These statements from President Karzai are very worrisome. Clearly, his statements that American forces, international forces are not killing insurgents is incorrect. We know, from outside observers, from U.N. agencies that the Taliban insurgents are killing three times more civilians than the international security forces are.

President Karzai knows that we are being enormously effective. The Taliban is having a hard time recruiting and keeping shadow governors of its provinces and districts because we’re so effective at removing them now. So, his statements are not in accordance with reality as we know it and as he should know it. So, I am very concerned by his statements. I’m much more concerned by President Karzai than I am by the counterinsurgency strategy we are following or even these recent, very grievous losses.

RAY SUAREZ: Brian Katulis, do you agree with the lieutenant colonel’s litany of progress?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, I disagree with one point that he made there, and it’s the point about counterinsurgency. We really depend on a local partner to make counterinsurgency effective. And I think John actually agrees with that point. A big part of the challenge in Afghanistan from what I have seen, my trip there last summer, too, I saw, was a lack of seriousness of purpose on the part of some of our Afghan partners, starting with Karzai, but around his inner circling.

So, we can’t do it for them, to a large extent. And I think this is part of counterinsurgency strategy. But if we don’t have a legitimate partner, you are looking at a situation much like what we saw in Vietnam and other places. You can’t do counterinsurgency in failed states, in states that are fundamentally divided.

It worked in places like Colombia, where there was a coherent government partner. It doesn’t work in places like Afghanistan as well, I don’t think. And, even in Iraq, there is a myth about the counterinsurgency success there, because there were many other factors that actually distributed contributed to the declines in violence, and we still see a lack of a coherent partner in the Iraqi government.

RAY SUAREZ: But take what you are saying and play it out into the future.


RAY SUAREZ: Does the United States and its allies in Afghanistan have to wait until someone takes Hamid Karzai’s place on the scene? Is that what you are suggesting?

BRIAN KATULIS: No, I’m suggesting, actually, we actually — I think one thing I would suggest is that, actually, timelines are good. Actually putting partners on notice — and this is one of the myths I think of the Iraq war debate — when we actually sent a signal in 2005, 2006, through our Congress, through our midterm elections that we weren’t staying there for a long time, the Anbar Awakening, the Sunni group that actually woke up and turned against al-Qaida, the thing that motivated them, one of the things, was actually the sense that the U.S. wasn’t going to be there forever.

And I think one of the flaws in counterinsurgency as it is applied these days is that it actually fosters this dysfunctional culture of dependence and moral hazard on the parts of partners. It is ironic. In Afghanistan, this country that is extremely poor, a country, the leaders actually very weak, that we don’t know how to exercise leverage over someone like Karzai six years into this war.

RAY SUAREZ: You just said, we can’t do it for them. Well, the United States has tripled its commitment of personnel on the ground. It’s ramped up its spending. What are we doing, if we are not doing it for them?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: We are building, finally, Afghan security forces that in time will be able to take over responsibility for securing their own country. And this is exactly the strategy that we followed in Iraq. I’m going to disagree pretty strongly with Brian on his assessment of the surge in Iraq. What happened there in 2005, 2006, is we gave indications that we weren’t fully committed to success. The Afghans wouldn’t work with us.

It was only when — and I have talked to the colonels who had these interactions with the people who — the Sahwa, the awakening, the Iraqi tribal leaders who decided to stay with us and fight against al-Qaida in Iraq, when we told them we are with you for the long haul, we’re going to stay and win this thing, that was when the awakening happened and when the tribal groups really came together to fight against al-Qaida.

And, so, we have to show this kind of commitment to an Afghan government that is improving broadly, although not yet at the top. And I — I am frankly flummoxed about what to do about President Karzai and his recent statements. And I find that of grave strategic concern.

RAY SUAREZ: But there is enough of a core of Afghan opposite numbers, you are saying, that we can continue, the United States can continue on this mission and succeed?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: There are a number of — of brave and committed Afghans at the district level, at the provincial level, inside the army, increasingly inside the police. So, there is a foundation on which to build. But it would be far, far better if we had better leadership at the top that was committed to an Afghan government that is dedicated to the well-being of all Afghans.

RAY SUAREZ: Quick response?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, at this stage, I think the big question we need to ask is, where does this fit in the broader U.S. national security strategy?

And the question I hope that is debated this fall is, what is essential for keeping Americans safe? Because when you see reports like the CIA report last week that said that Yemen is a more urgent terrorist threat than Pakistan or Afghanistan, it raises questions as to whether we’re overleveraged in Afghanistan, if you go back to that central question, are we keeping Americans safe?

RAY SUAREZ: Brian Katulis, John Nagl, thank you both.


LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: Thank you, Ray.