Translating Karzai’s Anti-US Outbursts

Like the Iraq War, the long U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is grinding toward an American loss, with little left behind in either country beyond resentment toward military excesses. Afghan anger is the best interpretation of President Karzai’s bizarre remarks, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar observes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Several explanations can account for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s outburst this week, in which he accused the United States of in effect working in parallel with the Taliban by keeping Afghanistan unstable and thereby having an excuse to keeping U.S. troops there indefinitely.

Karzai has vented with increasing frequency and openness over the past couple of years about various aspects of the U.S. and allied military presence and operations in his country. When he does this he is speaking more to his own citizens than anyone else, as part of an effort to insulate himself politically from everything that is unpopular about foreign soldiers and his government’s dependence on them. An immediate point of friction evidently was disagreement over the terms of handing over a detention facility to Afghan control.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaking at Georgetown University on Jan. 11, 2013. (Afghan government photo)

It would be easy to blow this off as just Afghan politics. It also would be easy to brush aside the illogical aspects of Karzai’s remarks. This included some of what he said about negotiations, including his comments concerning alleged separate talks (which U.S. officials quickly denied) between the United States and the Taliban. We nonetheless ought to reflect on why the Afghan leader evidently considers it good politics to say the things he said.

The episode illustrates the near-inevitability of significant friction and resentment among the locals from prolonged military operations, no matter how well those operations may have been received earlier (as indeed the intervention in Afghanistan was received earlier by many Afghans).

It also illustrates how easily the motives behind such operations get misunderstood, in ways that no amount of public diplomacy or public statements can correct. The U.S. military commander and the U.S. ambassador were speaking for nearly all Americans when both noted how preposterous it was, given the sacrifices the United States had made over the past 12 years on behalf of Afghanistan (and on behalf of Karzai’s government), that it would intentionally keep Afghanistan unstable to provide an excuse for staying there even longer. The very preposterousness of the idea demonstrates the strength of the tendency toward misinterpretation of motives.

In the United States, the issue of what sort of presence might continue in Afghanistan beyond next year appears to be in flux. Especially given Karzai’s most recent comments, there is an emerging similarity to what happened at the end of America’s war in Iraq. The Bush administration negotiated an agreement with the Iraqi government to pull out entirely. Then there was more discussion in this country about whether a total pull-out was a good idea.

The Obama administration raised, half-heartedly, according to its American critics, with the Iraqis the possibility of revising the agreement. Iraqi resistance to a revision was strong enough that the original agreement stayed in place. That was good, but it opened the door to perpetual second-guessing among those in this country who contend that the Iraq War could have been a win if we had played our cards a little better.

There are major differences between the American war in Afghanistan and the one in Iraq, especially in how they began and why they were ever fought at all. In Afghanistan the United States missed a chance to declare a win once the Taliban were ousted from power and their al-Qaeda allies were rousted from the country.

But with occupation and counterinsurgency dragging on, there has been a convergence in some characteristics of the two expeditions. The final point of convergence may be the perpetual second-guessing that appears likely to take place with Afghanistan, too, about the U.S. presence that will or will not be left behind and how things might have come out differently with a different presence.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)


16 comments for “Translating Karzai’s Anti-US Outbursts

  1. Don Bacon
    March 16, 2013 at 12:40 am

    May 2, 2012
    Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement
    The United States of America
    The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

    When signing the document Afghanistan and the United States must be considered as two sovereign and equal countries in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.


    1.The Parties shall cooperate towards improving the human capacity of Afghanistan’s crucial government institutions. U.S. assistance to Afghanistan should be based on the priorities of the Afghan Government and mutually identified needs.

    Designation as Major non-NATO ally
    On 7 July 2012, as part of the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement, the United States designated Afghanistan a major non-NATO ally after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Kabul to meet with President Karzai. “Please know that the United States will be your friend,” Clinton told Karzai. “We are not even imagining abandoning Afghanistan. Quite the opposite. We are building a partnership with Afghanistan that will endure far into the future. –wiki

  2. Don Bacon
    March 14, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    President Karzai has issued a statement saying his country wants a good relationship with the U.S., but one that is a friendship between two independent nations. –Two_Independent_Nations.

    That means two sovereign nations, which as I commented in my March 13, 2013 at 11:51 am above, President Obama phrased as: “Afghanistan will have a long-term partner in the United States of America.” –Partner_With_U.S.

    That’s “partner,” pardner, not “puppet to which we will transfer sovereignty when we feel like it,” which is the gist of the imperial General Dunford’s position: “these issues that have to be addressed are a natural tension as Afghanistan increasingly asserts its sovereignty.” As Afghanistan asserts its sovereignty? Wake up, general, Afghanistan has sovereignty and doesn’t expect tp receive it from a newbie like you.

    Well, Afghanistan is now asserting its sovereignty, and now the US doesn’t like it. The Afghan President of nearly ten years is being stiffed by the imperial General Dunford, despite the Commander-in-Chief’s position that Afghanistan is a partner with, not a subject of, the United States.

    This issue came up in the State Department briefing today, and the U.S. still doesn’t “get it.”
    QUESTION: The Karzai spokesman today said, in reference to the comments that were made at the weekend, that in fact what President Karzai was – is trying to do is to correct ties with the United States. Is there a sense, here in this building or within the Administration, that ties between Afghanistan and the United States need to be corrected?

    MS. NULAND: Well, I would actually refer you to comments that President Karzai himself made – I think it was about an hour ago – in which he reaffirmed the importance of our relationship and the importance of working together not only in the security sphere, but also in the democracy and economic sphere, in the interest of the kind of strong, prosperous, stable Afghanistan we all want to have.

    That response was non-responsive, just pure BS.

    • logiccom
      March 15, 2013 at 2:13 am

      “…very preposterousness of the idea…”. While I generally respect Pillars’ opinions, I’m confused when he describes an idea from a foreign leader with such disdain. How could anyone, not indoctrinated by US government/media sources, discount an alleged US motive (to remain in control of another country)without close examination? To label any idea as “preposterous” does, however, tend to eliminate thoughtful discussion of anti-American perspectives.

  3. March 14, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you President Karzai for letting Americans know the word negations stand for something more than in Divorce Court talking to a mediator. The rest of the wold knows that wars end in absolute victory or through negations. The US despite demanding total surrender still negotiated with the Japanese but not with Hitlers government.

    The US increasing drone attacks whenever Karzia talks Peace or a US Rep or a new US leader does is not helpful.

    The State Department is as ignorant as US peace movement leaders. Perhaps the State Department should be subcontracted to the British, and/or the French, some think it has already been subcontracted to Israel.

    Maybe every state department official should be layed off and replaced by devorce court mediators

  4. RichardKanePhilaPA
    March 14, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    RE: Karzai has every reason to complain (2nd attempt to post)
    One thing that one would expect those who blame the US or Israel for all wrong to say is that Karzai was installed by the US.. The concept of Puppet came after the US overthrew Diem in Vietnam for killing anyone who opposed him whether or not they also hated Hồ Chí Minh like thel ocal gangsters the CIA also sent arms and send aid to. Ho had earlier agreed to elections but Diem who represented the French minority was put in charge of the South until these election which Diem called off. And the US suddenly decided it wasn’t the US’s business to force him to comply.

    Many Afghans long for the good old days with the King, like some in the US Long for a return to Camelot, under JFK. He also represents the Shiites of Afghanistan and those who want trade and good relations with India to balance out Pakistani influence. Those who dont like compulsory berkhas and education for girls or and a little wine now and then.

    If those who constantly vote for the most complainant candidate under the theory that an incompetent central government would be more likely to leave the neighborhoods leaders alone dint vote, he would win elections by a landslide. The Taliban gives local government more independence than Karzai does.

    If he had the power to each month call for a moratorium of the drone strikes around the world for that month the Taliban would consider him a leader.

    Whats in the way. Al Qaeda had finally cried uncle by appointing and/or voting the Al Qaeda leader that had lobbied against 9/11 as its leader, until the US assassinated him.

    If the US declared a unilateral stay in base cease fire the day bin Laden died there would be peace or else the Taliban and Al Qaeda would have become enemies.

    The US could theoretically put a few billion for Iran and Saudi Arabia to hold or keep unless the US lives up to what ever it agrees to for a year peace negotiations would start moving.

    Think if you were an Al Qaeda member or a member of the Taliban and tired of fighting the US except by accepted the US offer to fight instead with your comrades. There is nothing for you to do but keep fighting.

    To change the subject I want to thank the New Yorker and
    Reader Supported news for allowing comments of achieved material.

    An comment is needed on the Dec 26 Consortium article on war and domestic gun violence, concerning comment on British Aerospace Engineering (BAe) sponsoring gun video games and toys like Female Space Pilots, and classroom material for teachers to use. Needed to be added is its former relationship to Lockheed Martin, and a possible willingness to pay more than the going rate for subcontracts with BAE,

  5. Philip Meyer
    March 13, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Karzai’s comments are ridiculous. Exactly what does the US gain from prolonging the conflict? Nothing. Contrary to conspiracy theories about the military industrial complex wanting war, they don’t have the power to make war happen or prolong it by themselves. However, its a convenient theory for an invented grievance.

    • incontinent reader
      March 13, 2013 at 10:55 pm

      Maybe you are right, or maybe instead the Administration does think that it would have much to gain by prolonging the conflict. A prolonged conflict would likely mean a prolonged presence, and if there is anything the U.S. wants, it is prolonged presence, whether it is for the imagined multibillions that could be earned in extraction of resources- or of the manufacturing value of the resources themselves (e.g., iron, copper, lithium, rare earth metals, etc.)- or the access routes for oil and gas pipelines, or geopolitical position vis a vis China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian republics, including Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in which it already has a discernible foothold, or to assist in the protection of U.S. and European companies’ oil and gas concessions in the Caspian basin.

      • incontinent reader
        March 13, 2013 at 11:29 pm

        This was not to imply that if the U.S. could cut a deal with the Taliban, they would, even if that meant throwing Karzai under the bus and selling his mother down the river.

    • Don Bacon
      March 13, 2013 at 10:56 pm

      What does the US gain by prolonging the conflict? Everything — more time, more power, and most importantly more profits. Just as in Iraq when with the war was extended past 2006 as a result of increased sectarian conflict with US support. Divide and conquer, instability in many places — look around and you’ll see it.

      General Dunford, Nov 15, 2012:
      “I think it is the question of confidence in the Afghan people that we are going to remain, confidence in the Afghan national security forces that we will remain, confidence in the capitals of the coalition that we will remain and frankly, confidence in regional actors, as well, that we will remain,” he said.

      It sounds like he plans to remain.

  6. Don Bacon
    March 13, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine involves the US military assisting a Host Nation — “HN” in the COIN manual FM 3-24 — both fight off an insurgency and develop effective governance.

    FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency
    Legitimacy Is the Main Objective
    1-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.

    There is a hidden agenda here, and that is that Karzai has been president of Afghanistan for almost ten years, yet his authority is being undermined by the new US military czar in Afghanistan, General Dunford. So Karzai is seen as being ineffectual, and other Afghan politicians are calling Karzai a US puppet at a time when a strong leader is needed in Kabul.

    Karzai was feted in Washington by President Obama recently in January when Obama said:
    “President Karzai, I thank you and your delegation for the progress we’ve made together and for your commitment to the goals that we share — a strong and sovereign Afghanistan where Afghans find security, peace, prosperity and dignity. And in pursuit of that future, Afghanistan will have a long-term partner in the United States of America.”

    Now President Karzai has had some gripes, relating to the fact that the US military in his country does not recognize that Karzai is president of “a strong and sovereign Afghanistan.” There have been some very real issues, according to Karzai:
    –the US of violating an agreement to hand over all Afghan detainees.
    –accused US forces of detaining prisoners who should have been released under Afghan court orders.
    –the US has refused to stop night raids and airstrikes in civilian areas, but NATO has continued with both.
    –US has refused to halt airstrikes while conducting operations in residential areas.
    –US has refused to remove special forces from Wardak Province

    Added to this, General Dunford who has been in charge of NATO troops in Afghanistan for only about a month, has acted not like his mission is training, advising, assisting Afghan forces, but rather he acts like the military governor of the country who is slowly ceding sovereignty to President Karzai — sovereignty that Obama told him he already had and was recognized.

    Here’s the imperial General Dunford:
    “You know on the one hand — here’s — here’s I think at the end of the day what we’re balancing, we’re balancing increased Afghan sovereignty with a continued presence of coalition forces here who exercise a piece of that sovereignty by definition because we’re in the middle of a conflict. . . .And so I think it’s important at the strategic level to understand that really is the framework for all these smaller issues to be addressed is it’s in the framework of transition and the framework of attention between sovereignty and the things that we are doing today that you wouldn’t typically do in a country that was at peace with full sovereignty. . .Again, these issues that have to be addressed are a natural tension as Afghanistan increasingly asserts its sovereignty.”

    • incontinent reader
      March 17, 2013 at 1:23 am

      Thanks for this very illuminating comment.

  7. RichardKanePhilaPA
    March 13, 2013 at 3:22 am

    I think Afghan President Karzai’s comments are even closer to the truth then even Paul Pillar thinks who gives the Afghan President more benefit of the doubt then most.

    Al Qaedas goal for the West is total bankruptcy of the US in particular, and has no desire for lessening war in anyway that would make that date further away. Derailing trains was what the US discovered bin Laden was planning as his next move something that would cause economic damage but not the draft a cheaper way to fight.

    The US cooperates with al Qaeda leaders in helping make them martyrs to inspire new recruits.

    With the same logic that is used to call al Qaeda a US puppet, the US could be called a puppet of al Qaeda.

  8. Dario
    March 13, 2013 at 3:11 am


  9. Dario
    March 13, 2013 at 3:10 am


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