September 1, 2010  

Karzai’s exit strategy

The Afghan president’s goal is survival, not victory over the Taliban

For all of the discussion in Washington of Afghanistan “endgame,” “exit” and “withdrawal” strategies, it is easy to lose sight of how these debates affect the Afghanistan government and the exit strategies President Hamid Karzai may be contemplating.

With the core elements of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in flux, it is becoming abundantly clear to Afghanistan’s president that U.S. involvement in his country will come to an end; what is open to discussion is the “how” and “when.” But Karzai’s calculations of what he and his country can do without the U.S. are not necessarily based on U.S. goals, such as defeating the Taliban and creating a functioning democracy. His pragmatic ambitions begin with the survival of his government, and any notions of anti-corruption, reconciliation, counterinsurgency, development and fiscal autonomy are permeated by this new focus on continuing to exist following the departure of U.S. and coalition forces. But Karzai’s practical considerations for survival may not be compatible with U.S. goals for Afghanistan and may serve only to delay an endgame for his country that will be wholly inconsistent with creating a moderate Islamic state with democratic institutions.

There are already signs that Karzai’s willingness to support certain U.S. goals for his country are shifting or weakening, and while he and his government will continue to work closely with the coalition, he is hedging his bets on a post-U.S. and post-NATO reality in his country. While the future course of Afghanistan policy is not guaranteed, one thing that is certain from Karzai’s perspective is that Western forces will not be in Central Asia forever and members of the Taliban will be — and are a factor with which he has to contend. Karzai’s “new pragmatism” is an outgrowth of several decisions the Obama administration has made, military and economic factors in geopolitics, and the logical conclusions of strategies Karzai has long embraced in how he governs his country.

The Obama administration’s estrangement with Karzai began during the 2008 presidential campaign through Obama’s political need to criticize the Bush administration’s record on Afghanistan. The campaign emphasized that Bush’s relationship with Karzai was too close and that the “partnership” they had developed had not achieved the results that were hoped for on such subjects as corruption and good governance. After Obama’s election, this perspective was symbolically represented by the president’s decision to cancel a weekly video teleconference with Karzai that Bush had initiated and continued for several years. This gesture was reinforced throughout 2009 by continued public criticisms of Karzai and was powerfully represented in the leaked State Department cables from Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry to the White House describing Karzai as “not an adequate strategic partner.”

Much of this public campaign of criticizing Karzai was an effort to encourage other Afghan candidates to challenge the sitting Afghan president in the August 2009 presidential campaign. Though the U.S. made every effort not to be perceived as favoring one candidate over another, it was clear by this time that the one candidate who long had our support was no longer favored and that we would be content with his leaving the political scene. The Obama administration’s sharp denunciation of the Afghan government’s corruption and fraud in the 2009 presidential election and clear evidence that Karzai’s supporters had played a key role in it continued this estrangement. While the U.S. could have played a more forceful role in preventing the debacle, the practical effect was that it became abundantly clear to Karzai that he would have to increasingly rely on his own efforts to stay in power and that the U.S. no longer supported him. This must have been a stunning revelation for him after nine years of close U.S. support.

While the beginnings of this estrangement might be seen as the U.S. distancing itself from Karzai as a political leader while simultaneously continuing our long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s success, the late 2009 Afghanistan strategy review had the perverse and opposite effect. The irony of Obama’s “new” strategy in Afghanistan is that it tried to simultaneously convey a sense of determined resolve while also communicating a need to leave. With Karzai’s election a fact by late 2009 and the Obama administration coming to terms with the need to work with him, Obama’s Afghanistan policy speech at West Point in December sent the entirely wrong message to Karzai. For the first time, the U.S. delineated a clear beginning of its departure from Afghanistan regardless of the conditions on the ground, irrespective of what this might mean for Afghans and Karzai in particular. While some elements of the administration have tried to walk back from this statement, others, such as Vice President Joe Biden, have embraced it wholeheartedly. The ominous implications of this departure date have been reinforced by the exodus of NATO countries from Afghanistan. such as the Dutch in August, the Canadians in early 2011 and the British in 2014. Additionally, the negative effects of the global recession have prompted some countries, such as Germany, to reduce overall military expenditures and have served only to reinforce Karzai’s view that NATO cannot sustain its presence in his country. Karzai is intimately aware of the limits of his security forces, the ability of his government to provide a positive alternative to the Taliban’s political program, and the determination of the Taliban. By having to contend with a set departure date regardless of the state of the war, Karzai is beginning to make decisions about survival that may not be in our interests.


The recent public announcement that Afghanistan has potentially trillions of dollars of minerals such as copper and lithium within its territory was significant for a number of reasons. Much of the debate in Washington focused on the impact this would have on U.S. expenditures to sustain the war in Afghanistan. The hope was that Afghanistan eventually would be able to financially sustain itself without any U.S. support. While Afghan officials likely saw it from this perspective as well, it must have had an enormous impact on Karzai’s calculations. For the first time in history, Afghanistan might be able to be completely independent of foreign financial support and chart its own course.

Karzai’s hand was strengthened not only with respect to his bargaining position with the U.S., but also with the Taliban. He could now potentially refuse to follow the goals of NATO and the U.S. and plan his own path, while simultaneously diminishing the political impact of the Taliban’s attacks. The logic of the Taliban insurgency has been to undermine the U.S.’s will to stay in Afghanistan by exacting a high toll in blood and treasure that would then prompt us to leave. The practical effect of this would be to eliminate the outside support Karzai needed to stay in power; then, his government would collapse by determined Taliban assaults. With the discovery of these minerals in Afghanistan, this logic of the insurgency has been directly confronted. It is theoretically possible for the U.S. to leave and for Karzai’s government to continue on without direct U.S. support. This is not to say that foreign assistance won’t be needed at all, but the argument that the end of U.S. support means the end of Karzai is no longer as strong as it might have appeared and has given Karzai new leverage with the insurgents.


The “new pragmatism” of Karzai is starting to be seen in many policy areas such as reconciliation, corruption and subnational governance. While Karzai has long advocated talking with the Taliban, this general policy has recently shifted. Because Karzai believes the U.S. and NATO will be leaving his country, he is trying to strike a deal with the Taliban that will bring them into power without causing them to either dominate the political process or marginalize him. He has begun the process of removing upward of 50 Taliban commanders from a U.N terrorism list and has been holding talks with representatives of terrorist leaders Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani to achieve this end. His tone has also changed as he continues to emphasize some of the “grievances” of the Taliban, such as the presence and actions of foreigners in Afghanistan. This also suits his domestic political needs by allowing him to play to an Afghan public that has grown weary of coalition presence, and his own, after nine years of war. This rhetorical strategy reached its apogee in an April meeting with Afghan members of Parliament, where Karzai said he would join the Taliban if the West continued to meddle in the affairs of his country. While some of these moves might be discounted as simply cases of style versus substance or part of a general strategy of reconciliation, the recent removal of Minister of Interior Hanif Atmar and Director Amrullah Saleh of the National Directorate for Security is far more ominous in its implications. It is a clear signal to the Taliban that a determined effort to fight them is no longer a central pillar of Karzai’s security strategy. Both men had been prominent members of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, commonly known as the Northern Alliance, and were determined opponents of the Taliban. Their replacement with less capable men is a clear indicator that Karzai is trying to make an exit strategy of Taliban accommodation a reality versus victory with reconciliation.

Karzai’s “new pragmatism” has also affected his view of corruption and of how to handle those who have been found guilty. Karzai knows he still needs the West’s support to transition to a new future for his country, but he also has to deal with the fact that corrupt officials are part of his political reality. Additionally, because Karzai does not have a political party organized around a philosophical set of beliefs, he has cobbled one together based on loyalty to him, tribal connections, ethnic identity and corrupt individuals. Every corrupt official Karzai pardons feels beholden to him and will do whatever is needed to make sure he does not go to jail or lose his corrupt opportunities. These individuals are also beholden to Karzai because many of their transgressions are so egregious that they know that if the Taliban returns to power, many of them will be held to account for their decisions. This kind of corruption is all the more tolerable for Karzai because it often deals with foreign funds, even when those funds were “Afghan” funds. However, with the mineral discoveries, Karzai can give more slack to corrupt officials because the budgetary implications are not as great as they once were. Karzai also knows that many of these corrupt individuals are powerful in their own right and he might need them to resist the Taliban if that time comes.

Afghanistan’s recent adoption of a new Sub-national Governance Policy and the Local Defense Initiative have been hailed by the West as crucial components of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy in the villages of Afghanistan. The strategy is that enduring local security effects will be felt as communities have more power to control their own affairs politically while fending off the Taliban. However, these policies also have another side that has not been fully appreciated. By bolstering local government while providing employment through community security organizations, increased opportunities will be created for the Taliban to secure local influence. A post-U.S. strategy by Karzai that seeks to accommodate the Taliban and co-opt them into a burgeoning Afghan state newly flush with cash from mineral development can create opportunities for local Taliban who want to have political influence, employment and an enduring role in policing their communities. This is not to say that they will have given up their beliefs, but that they might have an opportunity to play some role in Karzai’s coalition. In a way, if it is executed right, it could also split the Taliban as less extreme elements seek the comfort of a salary and an opportunity to govern their lives as compared with ceaseless combat.


Through a series of statements, policy decisions, geopolitical circumstances and unintended effects, the Obama administration has prompted Karzai to begin to think of a post-U.S. Afghanistan. However, Karzai’s goal is not one of victory over the Taliban, but one of survival. Aspects of his approach, such as accommodating the Taliban, taking a tolerant attitude toward corruption, and political and security reform focused on incorporating the Taliban into a future Afghanistan, have worrying implications. There are signs that various members of the Northern Alliance are rearming to face a possible Taliban future and millions of dollars are being moved out of the country each month to the United Arab Emirates, among other locations; people invest only in futures that are secure. Additionally, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and various women’s groups are sounding the alarm about the implications of a return of the Taliban on women’s rights, even if it is in a more tempered political form. But the willingness of the Taliban to reconcile with the Afghanistan government and the U.S. is currently weak because they believe momentum is on their side. While Karzai may believe he can negotiate with the Taliban in a post-U.S. Afghanistan, he may simply be delaying his government’s defeat and not securing a positive future for his people absent Islamic radicalism. AFJ

DAN GREEN is a visiting fellow at Aeneas Group International. He recently completed a tour with the Navy in Afghanistan as the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command liaison officer to the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs.