When Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president installed by the United States and propped up by American blood and treasure during nine years of war, threatens to join the Taliban, it's fair to ask if the U.S. enterprise in Afghanistan has stopped making any sense.
In early April, just days after meeting with President Obama in Kabul, Karzai unleashed a series of angry outbursts that stunned U.S. officials. He compared American and NATO troops to invaders and occupiers. He warned that U.S. military operations threatened to turn the Taliban-led insurgency into a legitimate "national resistance." And he accused "foreigners" of trying to rig last year's presidential election against him. "They wanted to have a puppet regime, they wanted to have a servant government," Karzai declared. "If the international community pressures me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban." To underline his point, Karzai traveled to China and Iran, and invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul.
U.S. officials have been quick to portray Karzai as unbalanced, if not full-on crazy. Since taking office, he has tolerated rampant corruption at all levels of government, cut deals with violent warlords to bolster his power and stolen nearly a million votes in last year's election. Those who have observed Karzai firsthand say privately that he has verged on the edge of a nervous breakdown during his time in office and report that he has been seen to burst into tears during official meetings. "He's a difficult partner at best," says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who led the White House's initial review of Afghanistan policy last year. "He's prickly, he's proud, and he's very sensitive to the charge that he's a foreign tool."
But Karzai's eruption represents far more than personal pique. Nearly everyone, from Obama on down, admits that the Taliban will eventually have to be incorporated into a reconfigured government in Kabul. The only question is when. Karzai — along with the United Nations, Afghans of all stripes and even some of Washington's partners in Europe — believes that the time to make peace with the Taliban is now, while the United States plans to expend years trying to gain more ground on the battlefield so it can negotiate from a position of greater strength. In essence, it's a debate over how many more lives must be lost before both sides lay down their arms. Karzai's insistence on not waiting to make a deal with the Taliban is nothing less than a full-frontal challenge to the Obama administration. If Karzai has his way, Washington could be forced to speed up the withdrawal of American troops currently targeted to begin in July 2011.
"By nature, Karzai is a conciliator," says Riedel, who supports the Obama administration's strategy. "In many ways, he's very un-Afghan. He's not a warlord. He's much more of a consensus builder. Advocating a political process is very popular among Afghans. After all, they're the ones dying in the war, and they're more eager than anyone else to find a political solution."
The clash between Kabul and the White House amped up sharply in January, when Karzai surprised the world at a high-profile international conference in London by announcing a major initiative aimed at ending the war. In sharp contrast to U.S. policy, which envisions peeling away low-level Taliban fighters by offering them jobs and cash, Karzai said he'd be willing to sit down with the Taliban's top military and political leaders — including Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Islamist radical who founded the insurgent group. "We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers," Karzai told the London gathering.
The initiative is motivated, in part, by self-preservation. "Karzai has to be there long after we're gone," says Christine Fair, an expert on Afghanistan at Georgetown University. "He doesn't want us to go, but he knows we're going to be gone one day. So he has to try to make a deal with the people who want to kill him."
Karzai's peace gesture threw the United States off balance. "It came out of nowhere," says Gautam Mukhopadhaya, an Indian diplomat who closely tracks Afghan politics. Not only did Karzai proclaim his desire for talks with the enemy, he also outlined plans to convene an Afghan national council, called a jirga — scheduled to meet May 20th in Kabul — to create a national framework for dialogue with Taliban leaders. "People are desperate for peace," said Masoom Stanekzai, Karzai's national-security adviser.
Working closely with the United Nations — but without the approval of the U.S. — Karzai has orchestrated a series of moves designed to get a response from the Taliban. Behind the scenes, he reportedly carried out a quiet dialogue with a top Taliban commander, Mullah Baradar. Kai Eide, then the U.N. special representative in Kabul, also met separately with Baradar's associates and other delegates from the Taliban's leadership council, the Quetta Shura. "If you want relevant results, then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority," said Eide. "I think the time has come to do it." Karzai enacted a law to provide amnesty for violence committed before the U.S. invasion of 2001 — a measure that reassured Taliban leaders they would not be prosecuted for crimes committed during their rule. And, with Karzai's support, the U.N. removed five former Taliban officials from the so-called List 1267, a U.N.-sponsored watch list that targets 137 current and former Taliban leaders.
To Washington's dismay, the peace initiative has started to pay off. In March, a delegation from one of the main insurgent groups allied with the Taliban, the Islamic Party, traveled to Kabul for meetings with Karzai and U.N. officials. Back in the 1980s, the party's leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was the top recipient of U.S. aid in the CIA-sponsored jihad against the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. But when American troops invaded in 2001, Hekmatyar joined with the Taliban to wage war against the new occupation. Now, from his secret headquarters across the border in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, Hekmatyar sent a team of negotiators to Kabul. They carried a 15-point peace plan calling for reconciliation and new elections, predicated on a flexible timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. In talks with Karzai, Hekmatyar's representatives promised to persuade the Taliban to go along with the proposal.
"If the international troops accept and abide by our proposal and withdraw from the country according to the gradual timetable," said an Islamic Party spokesman, "then we will solve our internal problems through political debates and negotiations. We will solve all our internal issues by coming together."
Mohammad Daoud Abedi, one of the Islamic Party negotiators who met with Afghan and U.N. officials in Kabul, told reporters that his group was specifically inspired by President Obama's declaration last December that U.S. troops would start to pull out of Afghanistan next year. While the insurgents would prefer that the withdrawal happen more quickly, Abedi said, the precise schedule was something that could be negotiated between the two sides. "If that's what the international community with the leadership of the United States of America is planning — to leave — we better make the situation honorable enough for them to leave with honor," he explained.
Abedi, an Afghan-American, then added a wry reference to former vice president Dick Cheney's hunting accident in 2006. Speaking about his feelings toward the United States, Abedi said, "How can I consider my own country my enemy? I am not Dick Cheney that I shoot my friends."
Karzai's peace offensive has provoked open hostility from Washington. The Obama administration's policy toward Afghanistan is a diplomatic version of "Shoot first, ask questions later." Before any talks with the Taliban can begin, the White House argues, U.S. forces in Afghanistan — bolstered by the two surges that Obama ordered last year, doubling the number of American troops — must deliver punishing blows to the Taliban. "The shift of momentum is not yet strong enough to convince the Taliban leaders that they are in fact going to lose," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress. "It's when they begin to have doubts whether they can be successful that they may be willing to make a deal. I don't think we're there yet." Other U.S. officials also trashed Karzai's peace offensive. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized the talks as "premature." Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan, expressed horror at the notion that Mullah Omar might be taken off the U.N.'s condemnation list. The U.S. military refuses to extend an olive branch by releasing Taliban insurgents held prisoner at Bagram Air Base, and in February the CIA worked with Pakistani intelligence agents to shut down the peace process by arresting Mullah Baradar, the Taliban commander in talks with Karzai.
At heart, the difference between U.S. strategy and Karzai's approach is the difference between "reintegration" and "reconciliation." Reintegration, part of the "counterinsurgency" strategy being pursued by Obama, involves pulling insurgents out of the Taliban one by one and winning them over with promises of jobs and cash — usually after an area has been cleared and pacified by U.S. troops. By contrast, reconciliation involves reaching a political deal with Taliban commanders, offering them a share of political power in Kabul in exchange for a cease-fire.
"The reconciliation that Karzai is putting on the table is not the same as the reintegration that the United States is putting on the table," says Fair. "The U.S. believes that the Taliban is fighting because they're getting paid: If you knock them around a little bit, alter to some extent their cost-benefit calculus, they might be interested in reintegrating."
The problem with reintegration is that it requires the kind of military victory that no superpower — not the British, not the Soviets, not the Americans — has ever pulled off in Afghanistan. The U.S. has neither enough troops nor the political will to sustain a decades-long nation-building effort that can clear the Taliban — village by village, and valley by valley — from the estimated two-thirds of the country it currently controls. Because the Taliban is supported by Pakistan — which created and financed the insurgency in the 1990s as a tool to guarantee that Afghanistan would remain in Pakistan's sphere of influence — it enjoys an isolated and nearly impregnable base of operations. And the Taliban has deep roots in the ethnic Pashtun population within Afghanistan, making it nearly impossible to identify and weed out. "The Taliban are an outgrowth of the people," says Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "The essence of the U.S. strategy is to separate the Taliban from the people — and that, in practice, means separating fathers from sons and sons from mothers."
The big test of the Obama administration's strategy will come this summer, when thousands of U.S. troops launch their ballyhooed offensive to take control of Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan. Together with the sprawling rural districts that surround it, Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban movement, and it remains largely under Taliban control. In February and March, a much smaller U.S. military offensive was unleashed against Marja, a farming community in neighboring Helmand province, in the heart of Afghanistan's poppy-growing region. Taken together, the Marja operation and the coming attack on Kandahar are meant to show the Taliban that the United States can oust it from its most prized districts.
But Karzai, intent on striking a deal with the Taliban, opposed the Marja action. And in April, he traveled to Kandahar to assure tribal elders, many of whom support the Taliban, that he would not permit the United States to move into the city without the support of the local tribes. "I know you are worried about this operation," he told the elders. "There will be no operation until you are happy."
The head of the provincial council in Kandahar happens to be none other than Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half brother and a notoriously corrupt wheeler-dealer who is a reputed drug trafficker. But Ahmed Wali also serves as a liaison with some of the Taliban's leaders in the Kandahar region — ties that could prove vital if the government wants to negotiate a cease-fire with the insurgents. Such subtleties, however, are lost on the Americans. In a stunning display of both ignorance and arrogance, a U.S. military officer recently threatened to kill Ahmed Wali Karzai. "I'm going to be watching every step you take," the officer told the president's relative. "If I catch you meeting with an insurgent, I'm going to put you on the list. That means that I can capture or kill you."
That attitude, experts on Afghanistan warn, is exactly what is driving Karzai to seek peace with the enemy. So far, the Obama administration has succeeded only at driving America's leading ally in Kabul into the arms of the very insurgents we are there to defeat. "The more Karzai feels threatened and endangered, the more we push him back on the people we'd like him to get rid of," says Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who knows Karzai well. "That's where he can find support."
This past summer, when President Obama was conducting what turned out to be a months-long review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, he found himself under enormous pressure from the Pentagon and his top generals — including Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, and David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command — to escalate the war. (See "The Generals' Revolt," RS 1090.) In the end, he gave the hawks what they wanted — tens of thousands of additional troops — but promised Vice President Joe Biden and other doves in the administration that he would begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011.
But few observers expect the U.S. to meet that deadline. "Anyone who thinks we're seriously going to start pulling out serious numbers of troops by July is living in a fantasy world," says Riedel, the former CIA analyst. "We may even find ourselves in a position where General McChrystal says, 'I need more troops.'" Riedel acknowledges that Obama will come under fire at home if he decides to extend the war, but he argues that it's a price the president can afford to pay: "If you look at this in terms of the politics, the frustration is going to come from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party."
In the end, though, the Obama administration may find itself forced to support Karzai's peace initiative. In fact, say longtime observers of Afghanistan, the White House may quietly be supporting the diplomacy behind the scenes, even as it blasts Karzai in public. "They've played their cards close to the chest," says James Dobbins, a former State Department official who led U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghan politics in 2001. "Certainly they're not opposed to talking to the Taliban on principle. It's not 'We don't talk to terrorists, and we never will.' That's not their position." Instead, he suggests, it's likely that the White House knows it will ultimately have to talk to the Taliban and is using the July 2011 deadline to pressure the insurgents to reach an accord. "The administration needs to decide whether a departure for the United States and NATO is something it will be prepared to agree to, as part of the endgame," Dobbins says. "You can imagine a situation in which a U.S. agreement to leave can have a salutary effect in Afghanistan."
For now, however, the Obama administration remains anxious about what, exactly, Karzai has in mind. "They're very nervous about what Karzai is going to agree to," says a former senior U.S. official with close ties to Afghanistan. "I suspect they're looking around for some sort of strategic agreement about what negotiations should look like." For many in the U.S. government, "strategic agreement" means forcing Karzai to slow down his efforts to court the Taliban and fall in line with the American strategy.
In fact, it's likely that concerted U.S. pressure can keep Karzai in line — after all, he's utterly dependent on U.S. financial assistance, and American troops are keeping him in power. According to insiders, he'll certainly get his arm twisted during his visit to Washington on May 10th. Still, with the deadline for withdrawal getting closer, Obama will soon find himself forced to choose, once again, between hawks and doves inside the administration. If, as is widely expected, the coming assault on Kandahar fails to make a dent in the Taliban's momentum, the president may have to start pulling up stakes in Afghanistan. "McChrystal's got until 2011 to show that his plan can work," says Freeman, the former ambassador.
The showdown with Karzai, insiders say, ultimately comes down to a matter of pride. "We are going through the motions to impart just enough stability to Afghanistan so that we can say we're going out with our heads held high," says Paul Pillar, the former chief Middle East analyst for the U.S. intelligence community. "It would be harder to go out under those terms if we smiled on Karzai starting to make deals with senior Taliban officials." To do so, he suggests, would make it appear as if Obama had cut a deal with the very people we invaded Afghanistan in order to crush. Which, in the end, is exactly what the president will have to do.
This article originally appeared in RS 1104 from May 13, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full issue. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.