The tension between the United States and Afghanistan is growing.
More details are emerging about Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 unarmed Afghans this past week, and there is still anger over the accidental burning of copies of the Quran by soldiers on a military base.
When he met with relatives of the victims on Friday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai prayed for God to “rescue us from these two demons,” a reference to the Taliban and many believe the U.S.
As the rift widens between the U.S. and Afghanistan’s people and its leaders, the Obama administration might be forced to re-think its strategy in Afghanistan and its plans for withdrawal.
The U.S. And Karzai
President Karzai said this past week that he believes that the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship is at the “end of the rope.” There is no doubt he does not see eye to eye with President Obama on Afghan policy and that their relationship is beginning to fray.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, says American officials haven’t always given Karzai the credit he is due. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that the U.S. at times has not always listened to Karzai when he has given a diagnosis of the country.
“In recent times the relationship is such that it has not always been functional for both sides,” Khalilzad says.
The erosion of that relationship has roots in Afghanistan’s most recent presidential election, Khalilzad says, where the Obama administration was perceived by many to be in support of Karzai’s opponents. He says that did a lot of damage to the trust that existed between the two presidents.
“Never point a gun to the king’s head, because if he survives he’s not going to forget that,” he says. “That’s what we have at one level with President Karzai at the present time.”
An Afghan by birth, Khalilzad has seen his country invaded, occupied and go through different phases of socialism, communism and even monarchy. But he says he is “cautiously optimistic” about Afghanistan’s future, depending on if there is a strategic partnership agreement and a residual U.S. presence.
“On the other hand, if the U.S. withdraws or abandons Afghanistan,” he says, “there is a risk of return to the 1990s … when a terrible civil war broke, which brought the Taliban and al-Qaeda to Afghanistan.”
In the interests of both the U.S. and Afghanistan, Khalilzad says he would prefer the former outcome rather than the latter.
The Military Solution
The U.S. is supposed to withdraw most of its combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, but Karzai said this past week that he wants that to happen sooner. The cornerstone of the withdrawal plan is to train more than 200,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army.
Journalist Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter, is wary of that plan. She tells NPR’s Raz that the last thing Afghanistan needs is more armed men.
“No Afghan army has ever defended its country against foreign forces or protected its government,” she says. “In fact, as often as not, the army has played a part in overthrowing the government.”
Trying to instill a notion of loyalty to a cause, especially a losing one, to the Afghan people, is dangerous, Jones says.
“[Afghans] think it’s really stupid to keep loyal to a cause that is losing. It’s a recipe for civil war. It’s a recipe for disaster,” she says.
The current military effort in Afghanistan is one Jones says should never have happened in the first place. The problem there isn’t, and never has been, a military problem, she says.
“Once you get caught in militarism, then you keep thinking that way,” she says.
Though military leaders have been saying for years that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, Jones says the U.S. can’t seem to think politically, diplomatically or in terms of the humanitarian needs of the people there.
“We’ve gotten into this bind now where the only thing we can think of is more and more armed men,” she says.
The one ray of hope, Jones says, is that the Afghan people might just straighten things out themselves simply because they are so very tired of war.