Since last summer, President Obama has publicly doubted whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai's corruption and incompetence make him a fit partner for our policy goals in Afghanistan. Now, according to Saturday's New York Times:
"Mr. Karzai (has) lost faith in the Americans and NATO to prevail in Afghanistan."
Regretfully, both presidents are correct. Neither of them has a national partner in whom he can place any reasonable confidence. The two governments cannot agree on a common fighting strategy. Nor can those facts be materially changed in time to make a difference, given President Obama's firm commitment to start withdrawing troops no later than the middle of next year.
The current price for staying is approximately one American troop fatality a day (plus several wounded and an undisclosed number of killed and wounded American contract employees). British troops are being killed at the same rate proportional to their troop level. The fatality rate for the remainder of NATO forces (proportionally) is about one-fifth the Anglo-American level of sacrifice.
As these truths become more broadly understood and accepted, I think more Americans -- Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives -- will come around to the lamentable conclusion that a continued, substantial U.S. militarily presence in Afghanistan will do no good for the United States or the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.
As the New York Times article Saturday went on to observe regarding Mr. Karzai's state of mind:
People close to [Karzai] say he began to lose confidence in the Americans last summer, after national elections in which independent monitors determined that nearly one million ballots had been stolen on Mr. Karzai's behalf. The rift worsened in December, when President Obama announced that he intended to begin reducing the number of American troops by the summer of 2011. 'Karzai told me that he can't trust the Americans to fix the situation here,' said a Western diplomat in Kabul. ... He believes they stole his legitimacy during the elections last year. And then they said publicly that they were going to leave.
I made this same point three months ago in this space when I reiterated my call from November for us to get out of Afghanistan:
If we need a credible 'local partner,' our local partner needs a reliable, supportive 'large brother' (to wit: the United States). But by first hesitating to support Mr. Karzai, then saying we will support him -- but only for 18 months, then publicly admonishing him to end the endemic corruption, then leaking the fact that his own brother is a major drug smuggler, we have undermined and infuriated him, without whom we cannot succeed in Afghanistan.
Then this spring, as the toxic relations between Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai became the subject of newspaper headlines rather than mere diplomatic gossip, Mr. Obama invited Mr. Karzai to the White House to be treated right royal. Fine food and fine words could not undo the fatal damage done to the alliance by the public White House words of the previous year. Mr. Karzai was intent on undoing American policy, and he has succeeded.
The essence of Mr. Obama and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's strategy for counterinsurgency and "population-centric" mini-nation-building was to: (1) Build up allied troop levels quickly, (2) as a first step, drive the Taliban out of Marja, an insignificant town of 60,000 in Helmand province, and set up some governance to demonstrate the feasibility of our "clear, hold and build" strategy, and (3) go on in June to execute the Kandahar Offensive, which would overwhelm and replace the Taliban in their spiritual homeland stronghold. Gen. McChrystal called this the "decisive" battle of the nine-year-old Afghan war. But as early as April, the London Times reported, "Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, threatens to block NATO offensive (in Kandahar)." This entire strategy was premised on inducing Mr. Karzai to let us help him set up minimally competent local governance on which the local people could rely. It was openly said that we would get rid of Mr. Karzai's powerful mobster brother, Wali, in Kandahar as a necessary precondition for good governance.
But Mr. Karzai, who had lost faith in the U.S., didn't cooperate. No decent governance could be set up in Marja, where Taliban executions of U.S. friendly locals are being carried out in daylight, in public.
Mr. Karzai has refused to remove his brother, and the White House has moved up the date to judge our success in Afghanistan from June 2011 to December 2010. U.S. Brig. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, director of operations for southern Afghanistan, told the London Times: "Our mission is to show irreversible momentum by the end of 2010. That's the clock I'm using." Gen. McChrystal has shifted his strategy away from population-centric nation-building to Special Forces night raids against the Taliban.
Then, last week, Gen. McChrystal begrudgingly announced, "The Kandahar operation (previously scheduled to ramp up in June and largely conclude by August) will unfold more slowly and last longer than the military had planned." According to British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, who commands allied forces in Kandahar, "One would hope that by November-time, one is demonstrating positive trends."
Thomas Paine, during the Revolutionary War, argued in The Crisis that there are serious moments in the life of a country when "to deceive is to destroy; and it is of little consequence, in the conclusion, whether men deceive themselves, or submit, by a kind of mutual consent, to the impositions of each other."
We are at such a moment in this forlorn war in Afghanistan. Only self-deception can justify the continued sacrifice of our finest young men and women in uniform. Given the two presidents in command and their irreversible dispositions toward this war and each other, failure is virtually inevitable. For a lesson in how wartime allied presidents ought to struggle to work together for victory, consider the Franklin D. Roosevelt/Winston Churchill partnership.
What is not inevitable is the number of American (and allied) troops who must die before failure becomes undeniable.