It can reasonably be called a meme now: Hamid Karzai is one of our biggest problems in Afghanistan. But what can we do about it? The usual answers seem to involve removing Hamid Karzai in some way—with all its myriad problems usually left unsaid—or outright cancelling the government.
Jeff Stein recently spoke to two people with tremendous experience in Afghanistan: Jack Devine and Oleg Kalugin. Devine ran the CIA’s Afghan Task Force in the 1980s, and Kalugin was a KGB General active in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Their advice is similar: ditch Karzai:
“Washington must quickly find alternatives to the corrupt politicians who have infested the U.S.-backed Karzai regime, perhaps fatally,” [Kalugin] told me.
“I would simply build up a strong opposition to Karzai, which would rely on values we all share, which would fight corruption, fight extremism, and, with massive American economic assistance, produce the desired results.”
He added, “There are opposition forces to Karzai. . . . those who are more liberal, more educated, more pro-Western and, let’s put it this way, more honest. Plenty of them,” he said, could be found here and elsewhere around the world.
Given what happened the last time we went combing the world for a replacement to Karzai and his clique, I’m curious where Kalugin thinks these mystical Afghans able to lead the country exist. “I would simply build up a strong opposition to Karzai?” I wish it were that simple.
Does Devine have any better ideas?
“We should figure out now which tribal leaders—and, under specially negotiated arrangements, which Taliban factions—we could establish productive relationships with,” he wrote Thursday.
“It’s a good bet that the CIA already has substantial relationships with many of these personalities, particularly in areas where agency operators have long enjoyed relative freedom of movement,” he continued. “Afghanistan is a tribal society … and tribal interests are often easy to accommodate with cash and other assets that help tribal leaders maintain their power.
If only we have decided to focus on tribal leaders, the war would be won! Sigh. Besides Afghanistan not really being a “tribal society,” (see here, or here, for example), there are a few issues here. For one, the CIA does have a substantial relationship with at least one major “tribal” personality: Ahmed Wali Karai (and indeed, one of the few things Ann Marlowe and I agree about is how incredibly toxic that relationship is). And we’ve tried paying off tribes to do our bidding… to either crickets or fireworks.
What I find worrying in this piece isn’t that two old-timers seem stuck in the 1980s—I can go to the Pentagon and hear much the same thing, if not in content then at least in intent—but rather that the rest of the U.S. government still is not, on the whole, adopting to Afghanistan as it is today. They seem to want it to be as they remember, in the 1980s, when it seemed easier (even if it actually wasn’t). Despite years of people shouting to the heavens, you still have influential former operators speaking untruths about the country; despite a decade to think of new ways of engaging the country, we’re still left with “let’s bribe some tribes,” as if that hasn’t been tried and failed ad nauseum.
This consistent lack of creativity—at least by higher level thinkers, if not the people down in the trenches actually experiencing the country on a daily basis—is, I think, one of the biggest reasons why the war in its current form is doomed to failure.