This week’s must-read on the Afghan file, I think, is Brian Stewart’s column about the growing sense that Karzai is more a part of the problem than he is a partner in a lasting solution. He’s fantastically corrupt, questionably loyal, and poor (if not completely uninterested) in actual governance. And while there’s no question that Karzai is a genius at political survival, he’s abetted by a very general but-he’s-our-bastard attitude in the West.
But maybe Karzai is neither solution nor problem, but simply irrelevant. That seems to be Robert Kaplan’s attitude in his long piece about the Afghan mission in the latest issue of the Atlantic. The piece is framed in a pretty useless theoretical superstructure about how the fight in Afghanistan is between “historical determinists” against men who believe in “individual moral responsibility”.
But set that aside and what you have is a pretty typical Kaplan article: smart, well-reporter, and nicely written analysis that is perhaps overly-credulous when it comes to the optimisms of the military guys. The general narrative though is familiar now: The counterinsurgency strategy will be followed by government-in-a-box solutions with a rebuilt ANSF at the forefront of the security situation, with ongoing peace solidified by a peace bargain with major elements of the insurgency. Karzai himself is hardly necessary.
As Kaplan puts it in the concluding graphs:
Again, the resemblance to the 1980s is telling, with leading anti-Soviet combatants like Haqqani and Hekmatyar central to the military equation, and a partially irrelevant Karzai: today ISAF officials talk quietly about working around Karzai by dealing directly with the ministries of interior and defense, and with the offices of the provincial governors, all of which they are fortifying with Western advisers.
The upshot: In 15 months or so, say the generals, ISAF will have the security situation under control.
But the central problem, the one that Kaplan foregrounds in his essay but pretty much drops as an issue by the end, is that there is no way in fifteen months we can hand the keys to the place over to the Afghans. Kaplan goes so far as to say that in a different time the country would have been an “obvious candidate for trusteeship” — run under a mandate by a major western power.
But this is the 21st century and we don’t do that now. Instead, we pursue imperial policies abroad and practice liberal politics at home, and pray that no one who matters notices the contradiction.