Karzai Washes his Hands - Macleans.ca

Karzai Washes his Hands


Last Friday, the IHT carried a piece by an intelligence analyst named Lara Dadkah, complaining about US General Stanley McChrystal’s new directive on the use of air power in Afghanistan. He required that it be used only under “very limited and prescribed conditions”; Dadkah worried that the pendulum had swung too far in favour of avoiding civilian deaths. She called it a “well-intentioned directive” that is based on an immoral lie – “that war can be fair or humane.”

If anything, the last week has shown that the pendulum probably hasn’t yet swung far enough.For the second time since the start of the military push into Marja in Helmand province (dubbed “Operation Moshtarak”) General McChrystal has apologized to Afghan president Hamid Karzai for the allies having caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The first was when a rocket strike killed 12 civilians in a house in Marja; this time, it is after an airstrike on a convoy of minibuses in Uruzgan killed at least 27 non-combatants.

McChrystal is said to be “apoplectic” after this latest round of civilian casualties, and for good reason. The push into Marja is intended as a showpiece operation for his new counterinsurgency strategy of clearing out the insurgents, holding the population centres, and installing stable and effective governance. The deaths in Uruzgan, while not part of the operations in Helmand, have nevertheless caused serious political problems for both ISAF and for Karzai himself.

Counterinsurgency operations is an essentially political act. It’s designed to force the population to declare an allegiance, to make a choice as to who they’ll support. And the only way they’re going to support the coalition (and, by extension, the Afghan national government) is if they have faith that they can be protected. Civilian deaths undermine that faith.

When I was in Afghanistan last week, I attended a briefing on Operation Moshtarak conducted by Canadian Brigadier-General Eric Tremblay, who is McChrystal’s spokesperson. (McChrystal himself was supposed to give the briefing, but he was already busy dealing with the fallout from the first round of civilian casualties). During the briefing,Tremblay went out of his way to impress upon us that Karzai himself had taken personal, political ownership of the mission.

Yet according to a NATO official in Kandahar, it was only with great reluctance that Karzai signed off on the Helmand mission, and once the first civilian deaths occurred,  he was quick to wash his hands of it. It is now being portrayed as an ISAF mission, with all the political heat resting with McChrystal. This is bad for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it’s going to make it that much harder to get political sign-off on the much more serious COIN operation to come in Kandahar this summer.

But more important, Karzai’s refusal to step up and take ownership the mission means that he won’t be able to take much credit for it either. Tremblay told us that the key to success was that the fight against the insurgents be Afghan-led, and Afghan-owned. Two weeks into Operation Moshtarak – which means “together” in Dari – the coalition seems to be going it alone.

The rules of engagement for coalition forces in Helmand are already extremely tight. They’re likely to get tighter still.


Karzai Washes his Hands

  1. Welcome back!

    Even if the coalition missions are successful, they have to leave sometime. It will be difficult to build confidence in the central Afghan government if they are not part of the successes and defeats. So even a success in Marja might as well be a defeat for Karzai.

  2. Thanks — good to be back. I agree with your last point. One of the journos I was with actually spoke with a Canadian who had been part of the first push into Marja, and he said the ANA troops he was working with had performed quite well. But that seems to be merely anecdotal — the picture that is emerging is of a mission almost entirely in the hands of ISAF troops. The whole point of this was to have Karzai take ownership of it, and the fact that he ran from it at the first sign of trouble is bad news.

    • Was just reading The Corner and came across this post from Jay Nordlinger.

      "Two years ago, a group of us had a sit-down — a “coffee” — with Karzai in Davos. I have gone back to find what I wrote. Let me excerpt:

      Karzai talks about a man whose home was mistakenly bombed by coalition forces — this cost the man many members of his family. And someone asks why in the world Western powers are bombing innocent people. Karzai says that such mistakes are less frequent now; the coalition is making a big effort to be careful. But mistakes will happen in war, Karzai observes. Just last night — the night before our coffee — the coalition mistakenly killed nine members of the Afghan armed forces. But remember, says Karzai: The allies have lost people in such mistakes, too. The Americans have, the Canadians have . . .

      Seldom have I seen a leader so cool, and unhistrionic, and un-demagogic — so mature.

      The journalists in Davos were trying to get Karzai to slam the U.S. and the coalition, for the casualties they were accidentally inflicting. Karzai would have none of it; he would not rise to the bait. "

    • Wow — thanks. It is an egregious article, for all the reasons Greenwald lists. Hard to see what the Times is up to…