Barack Obama's Big Fat Afghan Dilemma

The generals are frustrated. The Karzai government is a mess. Was Joe Biden right after all?

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Massoud Hossaini / EPA / Pool

Afghan President Hamid Karzai prays at a meeting with tribal leaders in Kandahar city, Afghanistan, June 13, 2010

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It is now clear that Hamid Karzai's government is incapable of doing that. "Karzai is not incompetent," a Western diplomat told me. "He is acting according to his own priorities — his family, his tribe, his nation, in that order." His family is Pashtun, from the region near Kandahar; his half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, known as AWK, is the family's designated strongman in the Taliban heartland. AWK has been accused of profiting from the drug trade and of stuffing his pockets with some of the private-security and transport contracts that McChrystal began distributing to local power brokers when it became clear that the Afghan National Security Forces were unable to keep the peace; none of these allegations have been proved. Indeed, the U.S. government has had a difficult time figuring out how to deal with AWK — who is tolerated by some in Kandahar, is hated by others and is certainly unlikely to be a force for good government there. The situation is further complicated by the fact that he has been on the CIA payroll in the past and may well still be. "When the Americans came in and said to Hamid Karzai that he had to get rid of Ahmed Wali," a well-informed Afghan expert told me recently, "he could say to them, 'I'll take him off my payroll when you take him off yours.'"

As the situation in Afghanistan has festered, an increasingly common reaction in the Obama White House has been: Joe Biden was right. Biden opposed the more elaborate military plan. He favored a stripped-down emphasis on counterterrorism — the special-ops and Predator raids that have turned out to be the most successful aspect of the Afghan battle plan. "The problem with Joe's idea," said a senior U.S. official, "is that you can use those methods to degrade the enemy, but it doesn't resolve the problem. Joe didn't have a policy for resolving the problem."

Hamid Karzai does. He wants to cut a deal with the Taliban. In recent months, there have been secret meetings between AWK and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban second in command arrested by the Pakistanis — no coincidence, undoubtedly — in February. In recent weeks, it has become apparent that Karzai seems intent on working with the Pakistanis, rather than around them, to secure a deal. The firing of his highly regarded Intelligence Minister, Amrullah Saleh, was in part an offering to Pakistan. "The Paks considered Saleh an Indian agent," a U.S. official told me. "He was part of the Northern Alliance, which was funded by India, and he was vehemently opposed to reconciliation [with the Taliban]."

There are no indications that the Taliban are willing to make peace. And there are some indications that Karzai's government would collapse, abandoned by its non-Pashtun members, including most of the army, if he pursued this course. But no other course seems plausible. The U.S. military would like to see the Taliban lay down their arms, but that's not likely. A deal in which the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar renounces al-Qaeda, accepts a subsidiary Taliban role in Karzai's government and is allowed to field local militias in some of the Taliban-dominated Pashtun districts of the south seems the least unlikely scenario. (How the Afghans eventually sort out their ethnic rivalries is not a crucial U.S. national security interest, so long as there is no safe haven for international terrorists there.)

In the end, a more punishing counterterrorism effort, rather than patient counterinsurgency, may be the best way to get the Taliban to the table. At the moment, though, the U.S.-led effort to protect the Pashtun populace in the southern provinces is proving futile and perhaps irrelevant.

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