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New Tensions Crop Up Between U.S. and Afghanistan as Major Transitions Loom

March 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
An insider attack on American soldiers and pointed remarks by Afghanistan's President Karzai reveal new tensions between the nations. Judy Woodruff gets analysis from Ambassador James Dobbins, who served as a diplomat to Afghanistan, and Said Jawad, Afghanistan's former ambassador to Washington.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on this, I’m joined by Ambassador James Dobbins, a career diplomat serving in a number of conflict zones, including Afghanistan. He’s now the director of RAND’s International Security and Defense Policy Center. And Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington from 2003 to 2010, before that, he was President Karzai’s chief of staff. He is now president of the non-profit Foundation for Afghanistan.

And, gentlemen, we welcome you both to the NewsHour again.

Said Jawad, let me begin with you.

Why is President Karzai making these charges?

SAID JAWAD, Former Afghan Ambassador to the United States: President Karzai is facing a transition, a political transition in Afghanistan.

And he would like to remain relevant for this process of the transition. Many of the things that he has said publicly are not new to the Americans. In the past, privately, he has said these things. The issue of the prison, for instance, he has promised certain Afghan constituency that as soon as the inmates are transferred to the Afghans, he will release them. And this is something that the U.S. officials are concerned about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — but when you say he’s trying to remain relevant, he’s worried that he’s not going to be relevant?

SAID JAWAD: Well, his term is ending soon. We have an election scheduled for April of next year.

He feels that he will be a lame-duck president therefore. Also, his calculations personally are that the United States has larger plans and they would like to stay in Afghanistan and the region. He would like to be seen as the man who is pushing America out or defending the Afghan interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador James Dobbins, this idea that the U.S. would be wanting to stay longer in Afghanistan, is there any truth to that?

AMBASSASOR JAMES DOBBINS, International Security and Defense Policy Center Director, RAND Corporation: There is some truth, but I think Karzai exaggerates the degree to which the United States is committed and wants to stay in Afghanistan.

I mean, clearly, if we had no role in Afghanistan, we would have no way of coping with al-Qaida either in Pakistan or Afghanistan. All of the attacks on al-Qaida in Pakistan today are conducted from Afghanistan. So we have an interest in retaining some role. We see a very modest, small role for the United States.

Karzai, I think, has an exaggerated sense of how important this is and how large a role we have. But there’s a kernel of truth there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how do you see what he’s doing? Why do you see believe he’s making these …

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think, Ambassador Jawad, there’s two very significant transitions coming up more or less in parallel.

One is the fact that the U.S. is drawing down from a major role to a very minor role. And our influence will diminish as the result. The second is Afghanistan is going through or toward what may be the first peaceful transition of power in its entire national history. This is unprecedented.

Afghans have never experienced a peaceful transition from one leader to another. And Karzai, as the ambassador indicated, wants to play a role, wants to remain relevant, probably wants to have a role in picking his successor. And he’s positioning himself to continue to be influential in the country even when his term is over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Said Jawad, how do you see this — this question of whether there’s any truth to what he is saying? Because some of it sounds farfetched to people who are trying to understand what’s going on.

SAID JAWAD: Well, the question is, does President Karzai believe in this or he pretends? Unfortunately, there are large audiences for conspiracy theories in all parts of the world.

So, when — sometimes, when the truths are twisted a little bit or presented to the people in a dramatized way, people do believe in this. As I mentioned, the biggest priority for President Karzai is the personal transition of his role post-2014. So many of the things that he says honestly has been agreed upon.

For instance, when he asked for the transition of certain provinces or the transition of the inmates, it’s just the way he’s saying it that is causing a lot of trouble for him and for Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What — Jim Dobbins, what about the timing of it, doing it while Chuck Hagel is making his first trip to Afghanistan as secretary of defense?

JAMES DOBBINS: Yes, I don’t know how much — I don’t know how much significance to attach to that. I don’t think there are any bad vibrations between the two.

He’s met Hagel before. He visited Afghanistan as a senator. But I don’t think Hagel has said or done anything that would create an antagonism. So it may be that this was largely coincidental. A couple of things came together. Maybe the Hagel visit was an opportunity to make some statements.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hagel seemed to — Sec. Hagel seemed to shrug it off, in so many words. How do you think something like this affects the relationship?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think it’s a serious irritant, but I think we are going to see more of it.

I think, as I said, we are ratcheting down. He’s facing historic transition. The country is facing an historic transition. And they are entering an electoral period. And under those conditions, domestic opinion, their domestic opinion is going to be what not only Karzai, but most Afghan politicians are looking toward, where our role is diminishing and therefore concerns about our sensitivities are also diminishing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Said Jawad, do you see this continuing too?

SAID JAWAD: Yes.

Sec. Hagel was blunt and direct on his talk with President Karzai at the meeting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean the private talks.

SAID JAWAD: In the private talks. And the meeting was — was a very tense meeting.

But I think, when he came out, he was graceful and cautious. And one could understand because of the sensitivity of the transition, I think the United States is more interested in the process of the transition, would like to see this process to be — go through and be completed. They would like to give some space to President Karzai and understand that he has a domestic audience to cater to.

And I think this is a wise approach. But, at the same time, we, as Afghans, we appreciate what the United States is doing. We understand that some of these statements, it makes it even more difficult to sustain support for the mission in Afghanistan. And we hope that the relation of the two nations will be stronger than the political position of certain leaders because of the political situations of Afghanistan that make — may make some statements that are not necessarily representative of the feeling of the Afghan people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, do you believe what’s happened today and this kind of statement coming from President Karzai represents a serious problem for the relationship going forward or something that the U.S. can just deal with, shrug off and move on?

SAID JAWAD: The Afghan people, as a nation, have spoken actually through the parliamentary forums, through their national and local councils and jirgas that they do want long-term relations with the United States, I think.

And the United States is making distinctions between the relations of the two nations and the statements of our leader. I think these statements does affect the sentiment of the U.S. Congress, which is key to continue to maintain the support for Afghanistan. But those who are deeply involved in Afghan issues, they will have more tolerance. They will be more composed and patient.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What — what should Americans look for in the months to come? The troop — every reason to believe the troop timetable, withdraw timetable will stick as it is?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think it is.

I mean, we’re cutting the troops in half this year. We will probably take another 80 percent of them out next year. We will leave a relatively small number. They’re talking about maybe 8,000, 9,000 American troops left after 2014. And those numbers will probably come down in 2016.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, in the meantime, between now and then, we can expect more of what we saw today and the last few days?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think — I think we will see fewer casualties.

There were casualties today, as we know, but the numbers have been coming down. U.S. — both because we have less troops, but also because we’re in longer in the lead in combat operations. We’re playing a supportive role. It’s the Afghans that are dying and getting killed in greater numbers than our troops now.

And so we’re going to see that continue. I think we will continue to see political tensions and flare-ups of the kind we saw over the weekend. There’s a lot of transitional issues that still need to be worked out. And, frankly, we are hopeful that there can be a negotiated peace with the Taliban. We see the importance of that being led by the Afghans. And Karzai is very frustrated, because, while the Taliban are willing to talk to us, they’re not willing to talk to him or his government.

And that’s a source of deep frustration, that the future of Afghanistan might be hammered out between parties that don’t include the government in Kabul. Now, I don’t think the U.S. administration intends to do that. But the Taliban would like to — would like to exacerbate tensions between us and Karzai and feed his suspicions that there are secret deals being done that he’s not party to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a story that we must continue to watch. We will.

Ambassador James Dobbins, Ambassador Said Jawad, we thank you both.

SAID JAWAD: Thank you.

JAMES DOBBINS: Thank you.