President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai discussed the future of U.S. military involvement in the country last week with the loya jirga, a 2,500-person council of tribal leaders and influential Afghans. The loya jirga discussed the U.S. military agreement to allow troops to stay in the country in a combat role, rather than just an advisory and training capacity. That agreement is the only hope of a Taliban-free future for Afghanistan. On Sunday, the council voted to have Karzai sign the agreement, but the president is now announcing that he would prefer not to sign until after the presidential elections in April. Unfortunately, Karzai’s political games are interfering with the future of his country.
Installed first as a puppet leader after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Karzai has been nothing but trouble for U.S. interests. The United States installed Karzai as Afghanistan’s leader without popular support and continues to rely on him. The election of 2009, which was riddled with low voter turnout, a lack of security and widespread voter fraud, saw Karzai emerge victorious despite low popularity before the election. The problem for Karzai is that he doesn’t have popular support yet. In the tribal-based society, the Afghan central government doesn’t have much to do with the day-to-day operations or leadership in most of the country. Thus, Karzai playing political games and holding up continued U.S. involvement gives him some ability to appear more important than he actually is.
The political theater in which Karzai is engaged in is only aided by the vital importance of the agreement between the United States and Afghanistan for both parties. The war in Afghanistan is now the longest-running U.S. conflict and a war in which the United States has fully engaged despite general dislike toward the conflict. Yet the United States cannot withdraw from Afghanistan without massive security consequences for the region. The United States is essentially stuck between a rock and hard place in Afghanistan, as the American people no longer have the will to continue the fight, but a withdrawal would further harm U.S. interests in the area and regional security. U.S. troops cannot be in Afghanistan without Karzai’s approval, especially after the upcoming end of the NATO mission in 2014, but the United States cannot pull out.
Karzai holds enormous power over the United States at this critical juncture. For Afghanistan, this decision is mostly about security. Because the United States has been responsible for a long and bloody conflict with high civilian casualties in the Afghan view, U.S. involvement has revitalized the Taliban movement by causing many otherwise moderate Afghans to join with the insurgent group. Though many of these moderates would likely disassociate themselves with the Taliban if U.S. troops leave, more extreme factions of the Taliban have been able to use the force given to them by moderate fighters to take control of various regions of the country. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in the Hindu Kush and the area bordering Waziristan, and creates security concerns for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Karzai has the power to dictate the amount of U.S. presence in these areas, and allowing some U.S. forces to remain in the country is the only way to curb continued Taliban expansion throughout Afghanistan and into Pakistan.
The only way forward for Afghanistan at this point is to allow U.S. troops to currently stay in the country for the time being. As the Foreign Policy Journal stated in a recent article, Afghanistan is not yet ready to step up and take security into its own hands. Troop training is too far behind schedule and the Afghan army lacks the ability to take out high value targets. Furthermore, there are not enough police forces to enforce sustained peace in the areas that have already been freed from Taliban control, and corruption within the Karzai regime continues to give the Taliban the inside scoop on coalition forces’ deployment strategies. Though U.S. involvement has made a mockery of counterinsurgency warfare and resulted in increased casualties, only continued U.S. presence has a chance of restoring peace to the battered area.
Karzai has set himself up well for this political maneuvering. He stands with far less to lose than the United States or the tribal leaders without an arrangement, so his ablility to affect U.S. involvement gives him power. Unfortunately, for Karzai to continue to hold this power, Afghanistan has to lose.
Dan Morgan-Russell is a sophomore majoring in international relations (global business). His column “Going Global” ran Mondays.
Follow Dan on Twitter @ginger_breaddan