When it comes to Afghanistan, it doesn’t sound like President Obama is in a negotiating mood. His in-and-out visit this weekend to Kabul, bomber jacket and all, included a rah-rah speech to US forces that didn’t mention a word about a political settlement of the conflict. He seems to have gone head-to-head with President Karzai, who’s at least engaged in peace talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party, a key ally of the Taliban, and who’s planning a peace council for the beginning of May.
Unfortunately, Obama seems more concerned about Karzai’s corruption — along with that of his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who heads the Kandahar provincial council — than he does about Karzai’s peace efforts. Indeed, it seems that many US officials have decided that Karzai is the enemy.
So Obama is counting on the major US military offensive in Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban’s effort in Afghanistan, to give the United States a military victory. The goal, according to media reports, is to pacify Kandahar and its outlying districts, home to more than two million Afghans, and then hope that the Taliban has learned its lesson and submits meekly to US-style disarmament and reintegration. The plan, it seems, is to do all this by December, when the president will hold yet another review of the war’s progress.
That’s the plan.
In his speech to US forces at Bagram , outside of Kabul, Obama seemed giddy about the idea that the American people support the war effort. "The entire country stands behind you," said Obama. That, of course, is not true. A recent poll, released by the Washington Post, showed that just over half of Americans, 53 percent, support the war. In recent weeks, the numbers are up. A CNN poll reported that 44 percent of the US public believes that the war is going well (up dramatically from a few weeks ago, when just 21 percent thought it was going well), while 43 percent still believe it is going badly. Obama, in the talk with the troops, seized on the uptick in the polls thusly:
"You’ve gone on the offensive. And the American people back home are noticing. We have seen a huge increase in support in — stateside, because people understand the kinds of sacrifices that you guys are making, and the clarity of mission that you’re bringing to bear."
Leaving aside the utter lack of clarity of the US mission in Afghanistan, it’s unseemly at best for the president to be touting poll numbers in a speech to the troops. Channeling President Bush, Obama came perilously close to promising a military victory in the war ("a military effort that takes the fight to the Taliban"), saying:
"We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies. That is our mission. And to accomplish that goal, our objectives here in Afghanistan are also clear: We’re going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We’re going to reverse the Taliban’s momentum."
So Obama is putting all his chips on the Kandahar offensive, hoping that it "reverse(s) the Taliban’s momentum," while ignoring, dissing, or criticizing the Afghan’s government to make peace. Admiral Mike Mullen, asked about Karzai’s talks with Hekmatyar, whose delegation offered a sensible peace plan that included a flexible plan for the withdrawal of US forces, said:
"I think it is premature. There’s no one I’ve spoken to, at least on the American side, that doesn’t think we need to proceed from a position of strength. In my view, we’re not there yet."
Note Mullen’s caveat: "at least on the American side." On other sides, including those that matter, there are other opinions. No wonder Karzai has started telling confidantes, according to a stunning piece in the New York Times, that he no longer believes that the United States has Afghanistan’s interests at heart:
"Some prominent Afghans say that Mr. Karzai now tells associates that the Americans’ goal here is not to build an independent and peaceful Afghanistan, but to exercise their power. …
"In January, Mr. Karzai invited about two dozen prominent Afghan media and business figures to a lunch at the palace. At the lunch, he expressed a deep cynicism about America’s motives, and of the burden he bears in trying to keep the United States at bay.
"’He has developed a complete theory of American power,’ said an Afghan who attended the lunch and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. ‘He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.’
"Mr. Karzai said that, left alone, he could strike a deal with the Taliban, but that the United States refuses to allow him. The American goal, he said, was to keep the Afghan conflict going, and thereby allow American troops to stay in the country."
Pretty amazing stuff. I don’t know that, left alone, Karzai could make a deal with the Taliban, but I certainly don’t see any sign of US support for the effort. Karzai isn’t my favorite world leader, but he’s the only leader Afghanistan’s got. He may or may not be willing to cut a deal with the Taliban, Hekmaytar, et al., that gives them a share of power, but as far as I’m concerned that the only path to peace.
Instead, planning its invasion of Kandahar, the United States is outright threatening to include Ahmed Wali Karzai on its enemies list. Listen to what the Washington Post reports today, in its story about the coming Kandahar offensive:
"One senior US military official described a personal visit he said he made two weeks ago to [Ahmed Wali] Karzai in Kandahar to threaten him with arrest or worse. ‘I told him, "I’m going to be watching every step you take. If I catch you meeting with an insurgent, I’m going to put you on the JPEL,"’ the Joint Prioritized Engagement List reserved for the most wanted insurgents. ‘That means,’ the official said he told Karzai, ‘that I can capture or kill you.’"
So. In the Alice in Wonderland world of Obama’s Afghan policy, we are threatening to kill the president’s brother because he might be talking to insurgents!
But talking to insurgents is exactly what the Karzai’s ought to be doing.
Who’s the enemy again?