Hamid Karzai Is Right, And I Just Experienced Brain Death

by Joshua Foust on 6/22/2011 · 10 comments

I’m amazed it has come to this, but the militant idiocy coming out of the American commentariat—take a bowa hundred times, Max Boot—has forced me, repeatedly, to defend a man I neither like nor respect: Hamid Karzai. It’s a stressful position to occupy, as Karzai is not a good man or an effective leader. Still, focusing on him as relentlessly as we do in this country, personalizing a politics that we should be institutionalizing, is a major reason I would elevate as an explanation for Afghanistan’s relative lack of political development the last ten years.

I have defended Karzai in response to allegations of his mental illness causing irrational outbursts—something that would be outrageously scandalous if levied against any other American ally (including Pakistan), and also indicative of abject ignorance of the structure of the Afghan government and the institution of its presidency. I later did this to defend Hamid Karzai’s push to take over the reconstruction of his country—not because he is a good person, but because Afghans have to learn to take responsibility for themselves. It is enough to give a man a persistent headache. Sadly, in the course of writing this piece, that headache became steadily worse until it resulted in painful, quite physical biological failure.

Max Boot’s latest column takes to a whole new level the ignorant, emotional ranting about something he should treat as deadly serious. I doubledare you to read this without wanting to stab the nearest wall with a stabbing knife:

It is hard to disagree with Mr. Eikenberry when he says: “When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost—in terms of life and treasure—hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people, they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here.”

It is actually very easy to disagree with Eikenberry. For starters, Americans are in fact occupying vast swaths of the countryside. When locals approach the nearest U.S. troops instead of the nearest Afghan government official for help, or money, or to offer intelligence about local conditions, it is worse than farcical to pretend we aren’t occupying the country. Much more importantly, President Obama has openly and explicitly argued we are in Afghanistan to advance our own interests. President Obama told Meet the Press on September 20, 2009:

The questions that I’m asking right now to our military…[are] how does this advance America’s national security interests, how does it make sure that al Qaeda and its extremist allies cannot attack the United States homeland, our allies, our troops who are based in Europe?…

And if supporting the Afghan national government and building capacity for their army and securing certain provinces advances that strategy, then we’ll move forward. But if it doesn’t, then I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan.

So no, Max, there is PLENTY to disagree with Eikenberry about. Because he is simply, factually wrong. As are you. Much to our national loss, Boot wrote more than his second paragraph:

In the end, however, the war isn’t about Hamid Karzai. Nor is it about winning the love and gratitude of the people of Afghanistan. NATO’s goals coincide with the desires of the vast majority of Afghans who want their nation to be a democracy and not a Taliban-run terror state. But fundamentally we are in Afghanistan to protect our self-interest, to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to being a terrorist sanctuary as it was prior to 9/11.

Oh, so clearly Boot meant that it actually is easy to disagree with Mr. Eikenberry, since he does so right there, and that he was wrong when he said it was hard to disagree with Eikenberry. That sound you just heard was a blood vessel in my cerebral cortex bursting, pouring my precious bodily fluids upon the sacred earth.

Our policy regarding Hamid Karzai should be to suck it up and make the best of a bad situation until his term of office runs out—while insisting that we will do everything in our power to stop him from amending the constitution to allow him a third, five-year term in office. In this regard there is good news, or at least a good rumor: Secretary of Defense Bob Gates says that Mr. Karzai intends to step down in 2014 when his current term expires.

He’s right in the sense that we’re stuck with Karzai. But he’s very wrong to pretend like this is a natural order of the universe. Many elements in the U.S. intelligence community worked behind the scenes to ensure that “our man in Kabul” would remain that way. Quoting SecDef Gates, who has exercised precisely zero control or restraint in terms of Karzai’s rhetoric and political behavior, to say that this is no longer the case (though Boot would never admit to such a thing, good heavens no) is not only not credible it immediately raises a follow up question: how the hell would he know? An honest commentator would ask Hamid Karzai if he intends to step down and get him on the record either answering the question or dodging it… and then would wonder why it’s even a question whether an elected official would leave office at the end of his constitutionally-limited term as President.

Boot does none of those things. But he still, inexplicably, keeps digging into the deepest darkest dirty of his ignorance about the Afghan government:

Rather than spend the last three years of his tenure clashing with Afghanistan’s president, American officials would be better advised to act now to groom a strong and dynamic successor—someone who will be able to consolidate the security gains that foreign and Afghan troops should have consolidated by 2014. (Unless, that is, President Obama orders premature and excessive troop pullouts this summer.)

That sound you just heard is my hippocampus fusing shut because I just can’t be bothered to remember a single thing we’ve ever done in history when we tried to groom a “strong and dynamic successor” to a head of state we felt was problematic. In fact, because now my hippocampus is irreparably broken, I can’t remember really fucking obvious examples of this blowing up in our face, whether the Shah of Iran, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Augusto Pinochet, or Hamid Karzai in 2002.

And because my hippocampus is inert and my cerebral cortex is still squirting blood onto the ground from the irrepressible stress caused by trying to understand Boot’s version of analysis, I don’t have the capacity to point out that if all you care about is transitioning security issues that are reliant on the presence of 30,000 Marines concentrated in a single province then you will lose when they leave—something I cannot remember Boot himself admitted because I am now brain dead. And if reading Boot’s column hadn’t resulted in my transition to a near-vegetative state, reliant on family members for bits of ice to stay hydrated and itching around the insertion point of the feeding tube going through my sinus cavity directly into my stomach, I would have been able to point out that because Boot’s solution to a political problem is to shuffle puppets in the Presidency and flood the countryside with troops, rather than focusing on the politics that constrain and inspire both Karzai and the institutions of the government he must inhabit, Max Boot is little more than a fascist thug seeking to enforce a violent perversion of American interest on a country that increasingly wants nothing to do with us.

But that would probably be taking things too far. After all, given my current state of brain death, I couldn’t possibly write this down, much less remember enough of it to do so.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Scott Bohlinger June 22, 2011 at 5:25 pm

So, yeah I get that Afghanistan was a massive screwup…what I struggle to see, knowing what I do about policy aggregation, adjudication, and execution, is how the US (& co.) as a state-level actor could do better. For instance, for the military and USAID to actually understand and care about Afghanistan to the point where they could make and implement effective and coherent policy would take a cultural revolution. And then to have commentators who would know what they’re talking about and be respected for it. I agree with you entirely, I’m just sayin’.

Frank June 22, 2011 at 6:52 pm

I think Mr. Foust’s point here is that it is the attitude of people like Boot, simultaneously ignorant and focused mainly on making America look good, that led us to the impasse we are at in the first place. I agree that to implement effective policy at this point would require a major cultural change within our institutions operating in Afghanistan, but if our policymakers and commentators had been making sober and critical analyses of the conflict from day one we might not be in such a difficult position right now. Perhaps we could have gotten some smarter policies into place before things started going down hill and if our policymakers and analysts continue to keep their same attitude, which seems to be the case at least for Mr. Boot, our prospects for success will not improve.

I also definitely agree that blaming everything on Karzai, despite his many faults, is just a way to deflect attention from our own failings.

CE June 23, 2011 at 12:55 am

No shit, right? Boot’s pseudo-analytic yammerings are turrrible. Turrrible.

Amoria June 23, 2011 at 3:48 am

Wait. I thought that Afghanistan was supposed to be a “democracy,” so what’s this talk of grooming a successor?

Not to mention that Max Boot’s solution would destroy what little credibility the Afghan Government had left.

Tom June 23, 2011 at 4:06 am

…my transition to a near-vegetative state, reliant on family members for bits of ice to stay hydrated and itching around the insertion point of the feeding tube going through my sinus cavity directly into my stomach,
. . .
… the politics that constrain and inspire both Karzai and the institutions of the government (th)he must inhabit…

Real … funny,
Money, its a crime!

Dafydd June 23, 2011 at 6:17 am

I recommend not reading this sort of stuff. I am absolutely sure there will be health consequences from ingesting shit.

There is, though, a real problem with who will be the next president.

Are all the US troops home in 2014? Or do the last lot leave just after the election? Either way that new regime is either going to be very unpleasant or very vulnerable to a coup.

Besides, I really can’t think of any likely candidates. Perhaps there needs to be elected mayors in Kabul, Kandahar & Herat to at least create some democratic infrastructure.

Michael Drew June 23, 2011 at 9:03 am

I’m no lover of Max Boot, but you repeatedly fail to actually connect with his actual arguments as you try to swing for the fences at them. You don’t address the claim in the fist quote, which seems to be driving your ire: he says that these descriptions of American presence and aims has a particular effect on U.S. armed service members there, not that they are wrong. Later you yourself note that Boot hiself says at least one such description by Karzai — that we are acting in our interest — is essentially accurate. Boot’s caomplaint seems to be that Karzai is being impolitic not characterizing our troops’ contribution to his country more appreciatively, which may also be a risible contention, but being unable to identify it, you are correspondingly unable to deride it.

It continues from there. For example, I don’t see in the quoted passage where Boot is saying that a Karzai-led government is the natural order in Afghanistan, much less even vaguely implying it. But I feel my point has been made.

I’d suggest re-reading Boot to see what he is actually saying, and you will likely find plenty of material to raise your blood pressure as much as your misreadings here did.

CK P June 23, 2011 at 9:18 am

The world is facing social, economical and environmental challenges, hence destruction and Keynesian economical principles has riddle Afghans and dampened the land with Afghan blood. Yet corruption and greed has blinded construction and demoted betterment, killing innovation and unity, which is the key to progress for Afghanistan. In light of secular views, it is important to see insurgents as a regulatory authority to bring progress within Afghanistan, where inventive ideologies are promoted for progress in the predominantly Islamic Afghan nation, that’s been stricken with poverty and tyranny. Afghans generally stand for peace not terror that some aristocrats paint’s it to the world via socio-imagery building negative perception.
Governance and regulations are mixed and confused by the “KZ” politico’s hence there is no end to the war and killings. A simple differentiation in governance and regulations together with stoping the direct foreign USAID which breeds corruption is the solution to efficient planning for withdrawal from the land that’s damped with the blood of Afghan civilian. Yet pulling out immediately would result in more and more bloodshed, and wast of 10 years as unproductive sacrifices. After all, if regulation and governance are not to be reduced to mere words, one must recognize that the concepts to which they correspond could also be presented in other terms. In this context the pre-history of the regulation approach can certainly be traced in much earlier on this Afghan tribal sovereign and Afghan evolutionary economics “trading”.

anan June 23, 2011 at 12:53 pm

“Many elements in the U.S. intelligence community worked behind the scenes to ensure that “our man in Kabul” would remain that way.”

Could you elaborate on how this was done? Hamid Karzai has long been a high profile Afghan with close ties to Khamenei, India, Russia [and possibly Turkey?] In 2001 Bonn, Iran initially pushed for Karzai to become the first president. When Pakistan said Karzai was acceptable, he got the job. Karzai was the “ONLY” high profile Pashtun in the country supported by the Northern Alliance, Iran, Russia, Turkey, India, China that was acceptable to Pakistan.

In 2001 and for many years after that Karzai was broadly popular and legitimate across the Afghan spectrum. No other Afghan matched Karzai’s popularity and legitimacy. Even now he has many . . . many supporters. Karzai speaks very well. Notice the body language in the ANA when their commander in chief speaks to them. Karzai was untouchable until 2009 [i.e. once in office there was little the US or NATO or the UN could do to remove him.] The only way to operate inside Afghanistan was through him.

Regarding the term “occupation” . . . Afghanistan was not occupied under President Bush because Bush operated through and in consultation with Karzai–the legitimate President of Afghanistan. Similarly, Afghanistan was not “occupied” during McChrystal’s tour in Afghanistan because McChrystal operated through Karzai. McChrystal and Karzai got along very well and McChrystal was the first ISAF leader to try to force “embedded partnership” and fighting for through and by the ANSF down ISAF’s throat. McChrystal consulted and obtained the approval of Karzai for ISAF operations, tried to forced ISAF to share HQs/intelligence/planning with the ANSF. McChrystal was respectful towards commanding ANSF officers and publicly said that President Karzai was his boss. Karzai specifically requested that McChrystal not be fired. Yet Obama fired McChrystal in a way that offended Karzai and Afghan sensibilities. Then Obama selected Petraeus without consulting President Karzai.

Much of President Obama’s public rhetoric on Afghanistan was inappropriate. Much of Holbrooke’s and Eikenberry’s treatment of President Karzai was also inappropriate. The relationship between Petraeus and Karzai has also broken down. This is why the question of “occupation” arises.

Joshua Foust June 23, 2011 at 1:30 pm


I didn’t mean to imply something nefarious. But the IC was banking on Karzai winning, and whispered pretty openly about their desire to make it happen.

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