In Response to Mark Jacobson’s Karzai-the-Ungrateful Piece

by Sunny in Kabul on 2/21/2013

Writing for CNN’s Security Clearance, Mark Jacobson, who served as the Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative (SCR) in Afghanistan from 2009-2011, posits that the man sitting in the Presidential Palace in Kabul needs to mend his ways lest things go awry. The ungrateful twerp. What’s puzzling is that Jacobson’s analysis, coming as it does from deep experience in Afghanistan at the highest possible levels, is so out of synch with what the Obama administration has in mind for Afghanistan.

Jacobson begins by painting a picture of an ungrateful, recalcitrant child, who should really be more understanding when NATO aircraft turn Afghan civilians into red mist. Karzai’s crime here is that he has “unforgivingly attacked NATO over the issue of civilian casualties.” Because the man should comprehend the fact that we’re really here to help, and dead civilians, well, who’s ever made an omelet? Am I right?

But Jacobson’s not done telling us just how ungrateful Hamid Karzai is, and that the man just needs to figure out that white folks do it better. Until then, he’s probably going to have the nerve to criticize NATO’s other efforts here.

He has claimed that it is the bureaucratic obstinacy of the coalition, and not any internal Afghan deficiencies, that have stunted progress in the fight against the insurgency.

Given that the coalition has been directly responsible for the training and equipping of Afghan forces for years now, I think Karzai may have a point. In fact, the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A), tasked with unifying all ANSF training efforts, was not formed until 2009, when NATO realized that the fairly ad hoc approach that they’d been taking in re-establishing Afghan fighting forces was in danger of being an absolute, abysmal failure. But that was in those bad old days before NATO really had figured out what it was doing.

Since then it’s been a much more focused (still abysmal), approach to training the Afghan fighting forces. Which, by the way, on the Afghan National Army side, have suffered around a 70% total attrition rate from March 2010 until September 2012. In case you’re curious, ISAF defines “attrition” as any reason that a member of the ANA stopped showing up for work, from being killed in action (KIA) through being absent without leave (AWOL) for more than 30 days at at time. So nearly 3/4 of the Afghan Army has disappeared for one reason or another over the last few years. Which probably has nothing whatsoever with NATO training processes. Couple that with the fact that US politics have delayed indefinitely the Light Air Support (LAS) program, which was supposed to provide aircraft that the Afghan Air Force could actually use and afford, and Karzai’s probably got a point about bureaucracy.

Jacobson then goes on to outline the Karzai response when things don’t go as well as PK had planned:

A hyperbolic statement, a clarification, and then a slight rollback on the initial position for the international media.

Which, while it’s a dance with which Afghanistan observers have become wearily familiar, is one that’s counterproductive in Jacobson’s estimation, as it “harms the ability of the international community to maintain its already fragile parliamentary and public support for engagement in Afghanistan.” But Jacobson’s main focus here is what he sees as Karzai’s latest diplomatic indiscretion:

Karzai’s most recent statement – that he will prohibit Afghan troops from calling in ISAF air support under “any circumstances” – reflects this problem. This move followed a joint Afghan-NATO operation, where Afghan forces called in air support that tragically resulted in the deaths of 10 Afghan civilians. Karzai, rather than seeking a “mature” discussion of the issues, acted reflexively and issued a decree barring Afghan forces from asking “for the foreigners’ planes for carrying out operations on our homes and villages.”

It’s…2013. And this dropping-bombs-on-the-wrong-people has happened with depressing regularity. Fortunately, according to UNAMA’s latest report on civilian casualties, these little accidents seem to be happening less often, but at some point when is the leader of Afghanistan not supposed to be upset? This decree isn’t a reflex: it’s the statement of a nation’s president making it clear that he’s probably had just about enough with the dead Afghan civilians at the hands of those who are here to help. It’s at this point that Jacobson starts to describe an alternate universe General Caldwell would have been proud of, one where…well, let Jacobson explain:

Back in the coalition capitals, the perception is that not only is the international community not wanted…

Um, Karzai’s made that pretty clear, actually. That’s not perception, it’s a fact. And he’s not the only Afghan who’s probably a little done with the Great American Aid and Development Roadshow in this particular ‘stan.

…but that our troops, who fight side by side with Afghans, may be prohibited from taking actions to defend themselves.

Let’s pause here for a moment. In the last 30 days, not a single American has died in Afghanistan, something that hasn’t happened here for six years. That is not the sort of statistic that comes about when one is fighting side by side with anybody. That’s the kind of number you get if you’ve put your Afghan peers in the lead to take the heat. Which we’ve done, and it’s resulting in soaring ANA casualty numbers on a scale that would bring this war to a screeching halt if those dead guys were Americans.

This is a recipe for failure when populations are already on edge over stories of infiltrator attacks and the Afghan National Security Forces’ inability to take over on its own. Nations have remained engaged in Afghanistan despite an ever increasing lack of support by their populations.

To be clear: in 2010, at the height of the surge, back when some people (mainly with the last name of Kagan) still thought this thing was winnable, US forces made up 68% of the total presence in Afghanistan. The next largest contributor? The United Kingdom, with 7% of the total forces here on the ground. And it drops off from there. Steeply. What Jacobson’s really worried about? The poor, helpless Afghans and all that money just going away.

Statements like those from the Afghan palace could trigger an end to not just military aid but, in times of severe budget austerity, development assistance as well. In short, this is not the narrative Karzai wants. There are too many in the West who would be all too willing to call his bluff and leave him and the Afghan people on their own.

Which, as he’s made clear more than once, is exactly what Karzai wants, at least publicly. What’s alarming in Jacobson’s conclusions is the assumption that this is somehow in conflict with what exactly the United States wants to have happen at this point in the festivities. A piece I co-authored over at the Afghan Analysts Network, in response to Karzai’s latest decree, draws this conclusion:

If the Afghan government does not want the help of US airpower, the question is raised: why should US aircraft remain in Afghanistan? Granted, while US troops are still actively engaging the insurgency, those assets are not likely to leave anytime soon, but it does provide greater impetus for those in the US government calling for an increase in the pace of US disengagement. In a rare instance of converging agendas, Karzai’s bid for increased sovereignty aligns perfectly with the US desire to extract itself from Afghanistan as quickly as it can.

Which makes sense, given General Dunford’s response to Karzai’s announcement:

In this light, it is perhaps not so surprising that the response of General Dunford was so positive. ‘This is a sovereign nation,’ he told a press conference earlier today. ‘The president is exercising his sovereignty’ (see reporting here and here). He said coalition forces believed they could conduct ‘effective operations within the president’s guidance’ because it falls within their current tactical directive…

What the United States wants to do is get out of Afghanistan as quickly as it can. The pace of that withdrawal was accelerated considerably after Karzai’s latest trip to the United States, and this pronouncement just makes that even more possible. The fact that Jacobson, who moves in the kinds of circles where people should know better, sees it any differently is either a sign that he’s toeing some inconceivably inept party line, or he’s out of touch on level Kim Jong Un would find perplexing. But it’s not all doom and gloom, because at the heart of it, Jacobson really really cares about the Afghans.

Afghanistan needs Karzai the statesman: the Karzai who can work with both the international community and the Afghan people, not just play one against the other. This is Karzai’s charge for the final year of his presidency. Failure may mean putting peace much further out of reach of the Afghan people who have already suffered so much for so long.

Jacobson and his ilk don’t want the statesman. They want the puppet we helped put in power and who has since figured out that he might actually be in charge of this particular circus. What Jacobson really wants is a man who’s willing to take his marching orders and American dollars, smile for the cameras, and tell everyone how happy he is that the ‘mericans are here. Karzai’s turned into a real boy, and Gepetto’s pissed.

Like it or not, this is Karzai the statesman. This is how Karzai negotiates, but not with the US: he’s angling for his future post-2014. This is how Karzai the statesman makes a deal with whoever’s going to be in charge in this country in 2015 and beyond. Hamid Karzai of all people realizes that his days of having to deal exclusively with the Americans are pretty much done, and it’s time he thinks about what’s coming next. Karzai knows about the austere budgets, the fact that the SIGAR is calling for a halt to more aid dollars to Afghanistan, that the world as he knew it has changed. He knows how precarious his position here really is, and the fact that he can no longer rely on American dollars and military might to ensure his future. So go ahead, color him ungrateful. He’s probably fine with that.

Source: Sunny in Kabul


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– author of 15 posts on Registan.net.

Happily married, cynic, and I long to drink the Kool-Aid. Two tours in Iraq, once as an Infantry officer, once as a Civil Affairs officer supporting a PRT. Now it's civilian development work in Afghanistan since 2009. I want to believe, it's just that the lies are so laughable.

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