In the 1960s, Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane sang, in "White Rabbit," about when "the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go." Now, in a surreal, through-the-looking-glass moment, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, the almost classic definition of a pawn, has done exactly that. In a series of angry, frustrated outbursts, Karzai has declared that the United States is acting like an invader and occupier, that "there is a thin curtain between invasion and cooperation-assistance," that the heavy-handed US and NATO military operations could transform the insurgency into a "national resistance" and that he himself might throw in his lot with the Taliban. He said, not without reason, that the Obama administration was trying to undercut his efforts to reach a settlement with the Taliban. And an Afghan who attended a meeting with Karzai told the New York Times, "He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them."
The idea that the urbane Karzai, educated in India, might join the Taliban is highly unlikely. Installed in 2001 with US support, Karzai has acquired a well-deserved reputation for tolerating rampant corruption and for making power-sharing deals with violent warlords. And he was almost universally accused of engineering widespread fraud during his re-election bid last August. Still, he has a point, and although he is at best an imperfect vehicle to represent nationalist opinion, Karzai is accurately reflecting the feelings of an increasing number of Afghans about the US occupation, now in its ninth year--feelings no doubt inflamed by recent Afghan government allegations that US Special Operations forces tampered with evidence to cover up their killing of civilian women near Gardez.
Karzai has also launched, apparently without US support, a significant peace initiative. Earlier this year he unexpectedly declared that he would seek to reconcile with top-level Taliban leaders, and he announced his intent to convene a tribal jirga, or council, in May to discuss how to bring the Taliban back into Afghan political life. In March Karzai met with representatives of one of the three main insurgent groups, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Islamic Party, whose delegates presented a peace plan predicated on a negotiable withdrawal date for US and NATO forces. The plan, according to the delegation, was also acceptable to the main Taliban leadership.
Despite the oft-repeated claim by US government officials that the war has no military solution, Washington has offered little or no support for Karzai's peace efforts. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Karzai's meetings with Hekmatyar's representatives "premature." American officials have long insisted that US troops must first deliver punishing blows to the Taliban before talks are considered. The Pentagon has telegraphed its plans to launch an all-out offensive to seize control of Taliban-dominated Kandahar beginning in June, following hard upon its mini-offensive to oust the Taliban from Marja, a key district in Helmand province.
But the news on the military front isn't good. Despite the trumpeting of the supposed US victory in Marja--touted as the first concrete demonstration of the effectiveness of the surge of 30,000-plus troops ordered by Obama in December--the situation there is fast unraveling. The Taliban's shadow governor for the region has come back, and the insurgents have "re-seized control and the momentum," according to Maj. James Coffman, a US civil affairs leader in the area. "The Taliban are everywhere," a tribal elder told a reporter on the scene. The United States can't afford too many victories like Marja.
Karzai reportedly opposed the Marja offensive. In early April he told tribal elders in Kandahar--where his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, heads the provincial council--that he isn't enthusiastic about the planned US attack there either. Ahmed Wali, a notoriously corrupt wheeler-dealer and reputed drug kingpin, also maintains quiet links to Taliban officials. Such ties would be important, perhaps crucial, if there is any hope of a negotiated deal. But astonishingly, a US military officer recently threatened Ahmed Wali with death if he's caught talking to the Taliban.
What does it mean when the president of the country the United States is occupying says he might join the insurgency? What does it mean when a US officer threatens to kill the president's brother for meeting with the insurgents? What does it mean when the president opposes major military offensives launched by the occupying power? Here's what it means: that the US enterprise in Afghanistan is hopelessly misguided.
It's possible the United States is the only player that doesn't realize that its strategy can't work. Karzai is angling for a deal, although whether he can survive in a post-American Afghanistan is open to question. The Taliban and their allies, including Hekmatyar's Islamic Party, are exploring their options for a political accord. Likewise, India and Pakistan, the two key outside players in Afghanistan's drama, are maneuvering to gain advantage.
Pakistan, of course, created the Taliban in the 1990s as a cat's paw for extending influence in Afghanistan. Since then the Pakistani army and intelligence service have maintained not-so-covert ties to the Taliban, and they continue to see the organization as a potential ally even though they have arrested some key leaders recently as a result of US pressure. India, for its part, long supported Karzai's allies in the old anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. But recently the startling news emerged that New Delhi is making plans to open direct lines to the Taliban. That could mean India does not want to cede to Pakistan the sole power to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table.
In his December speech announcing the surge, Obama declared that US forces would begin to withdraw in July 2011. Whether or not he holds to that date, all of the region's players are making plans based on the notion that the occupation can't last much longer. It certainly can't be sustained much longer in the United States politically--the burden it places on the budget in a time of economic crisis and vast deficits is too great, and the likelihood of quick battlefield successes is diminishing. Though Obama has already carried out two major reviews of Afghan policy, it's time for a third. And this one has to center on the question of how to engage all of the stakeholders in Afghanistan's tragedy in search of a political accord.