Sunday, March 17, 2013

U.S. Plays Checkers While Karzai Plays Chess


The following guest blog was written exclusively for The Reno Dispatch by retired Lt. Col John L. Cook, the fascinating and reliably controversial former Army intelligence officer and senior adviser to the Ministry of Interior in Afghanistan who for five years oversaw the development of the force structure of the Afghan National Police. In his compelling new book Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure, Cook - who earned the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart during his military career - divulges secrets of America’s longest war and suggests that all the major objectives in Afghanistan have not worked. Cook, as I have said before on this blog, is a no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip guy who can anger both liberals and conservatives - so he must be doing something right. He's been both praised and criticized for helping run the Phoenix Program, the counterinsurgency plan employed by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. I don't always agree with John, but I respect him and enjoy his writing. Below, he once again pulls no punches in his commentary about the latest outrageous allegations from Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai that the U.S. and the Taliban are conspiring to keep troops in Afghanistan.

- Jamie Reno

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When it comes to public strategy, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is a chess master. As for the U.S., well, we're still learning how to play checkers. This has been demonstrated repeatedly during this rocky 12-year marriage, but we have yet to figure out how to play the game. Each time Karzai makes a strategic, controversial move we feign shock, quickly try to spin the story, and desperately seek to limit the damage with flaccid statements from the State Department or the senior commander on the ground in Kabul at the time of the dust up.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai
The latest eruption occurred a week ago when the newly minted Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, made his maiden flight to Afghanistan to kiss Karzai’s ring. Of course, no one could anticipate that the Taliban would try to steal the spotlight during this trip by blowing up the Ministry of Defense, but they did. That’s another thing we have failed at, the information war. 

Karzai subsequently stunned the Western world by saying the attack was the result of a conspiracy between the U.S. and the Taliban in order to justify the American presence there past the 2014 deadline for withdrawal. That announcement put the diplomatic corps in a tizzy because this breach of protocol would be hard to paper over. Pundits here and around the world tried to make sense of it because, on its face, the charge made absolutely no sense. All seemed to agree it was insane.

While I would agree with this assessment if everyone that claims to be saving Afghanistan were playing checkers, the truth is, not everyone is. The key player is this drama, Hamid Karzai, has been playing chess from the beginning, and he's always been at least three moves ahead of the coalition. 

Karzai came to power during the Bonn Conference way back in 2001 and is still in control of the board.  During this period, the coalition has replaced ambassadors, military commanders, entire governments and presidents. Even different strategies have been used as we tried several courses.  The only constant has been Hamid Karzai. When we overlook this fact, or fail to give it the weight it deserves, we do so at great peril. 

When he formed the Provisional Government back in 2002, Karzai he had to create something that looked like a central government, but wasn’t. He had to reach out to both former Warlords who fought the Soviets and former loyalists who supported the communist president, and cobble together an uneasy alliance. Otherwise, Afghanistan would have quickly self-destructed once the Taliban were displaced.  How was this possible? Simple.  He promised them a piece of the pie the coalition was about to offer.  All they had to do was pretend they wanted to save Afghanistan and that they were all working together.  

In truth, they hated each other, and still do, because each side kept score during the Soviet occupation and, make no mistake, everyone in Afghanistan lost someone close to them  between 1979 and 1989.  Today, these two groups make up the Afghan government. And we think they are united but they are not.

In 2004, we handed Karzai a constitution that looks a lot like ours. It has three branches of government, just like ours, with an executive, judicial and legislative branch, each designed to be co-equal. The problem is, it isn’t.  While it is a beautifully written document, only the executive branch has any power. The parliament is an odd assortment of former Warlords, Taliban and illiterate straphangers who have no idea what their duties are but they know they are important and their votes, when needed, are always for sale to the highest bidder.  

True, Afghanistan does have a Supreme Count and there are several courts located throughout the country. Who appoints the judges? Hamid Karzai. In Afghanistan, there is an old saying, “Everyone is entitled to as much justice as they can afford.”   

As a result, there are no wealthy Afghans in the overcrowded prisons. If an average Afghan wants justice, he takes his case to an area controlled by the Taliban, where justice is often swift and somewhat brutal, but it is never for sale.

Unfortunately, we never wanted to examine any of this because we were on a mission to rebuild Afghanistan and Karzai was our guy, our Golden Boy. We had gone in the tank for him, early on, and now we’re stuck with him. Each new ambassador and military commander was warmly welcomed to the Presidential Palace and Karzai charmed them. He made them feel important, that they were saving his nation and, with a little more aid and support, they could all win.  

Of course, each of these officials knew their tour was limited and Karzai milked them for all he could get. The truth is, he never really wanted to defeat the Taliban because they were his reason to exist.  Without the Taliban he would have no reason to exist as a war time president on the world’s stage. If he was serious, Afghanistan would have a national draft, where the best and the brightest are conscripted into the Army and National Police. 

But that is not going to happen, which explains why these units have an illiteracy rate of 90 percent.  Another fact we overlooked is that Karzai is from the Pastun tribe. Over 95 percent of the Taliban are Pastun.

And Karzai managed to seduce all these officials. While the Bush administration seemed to pose a threat to the booming opium trade, Karzai managed to slow-roll him until the Obama administration took power. Opium was a major part of Karzai’s interlocking criminal enterprise and he was determined not to lose it.  When Obama sent Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan in 2009 as his special representative, Karzai quickly convinced Holbrooke that poppy farmers needed to make a living and Holbrooke quickly agreed.  

Finally, any threat from the coalition to the drug trade was now officially over. Holbrooke made sure of that. At this point, Karzai knew Obama was overmatched at chess. So he simply raised the stakes and demanded more American troops. He never expected them to actually defeat the Taliban but what they brought was more money into the country. When Obama tried to start the withdrawal in 2011, Karzai countered by changing the date  to 2014. 

Now we have come full circle. With Karzai in complete control of the board, he knows what our next move will be and he is ready for it. We have convinced him that Afghanistan is more important to us than it is to him. 

By showing him our game plan, we gave away our leverage, and he took full advantage. In short, he knows us better than we know ourselves. Now, he can play to the crowd, the Afghan population, and throw them a bone. He has stood up to the foreign invaders and the people love that. 

Now, he can wrap himself in the flag and claim he is a nationalist after all. Will it work? That’s the wrong question and if that’s what we ask, he has already won. The reality is, it makes no difference what we do at this point. If we insist on staying, we stay on his terms. If we decide to leave, he still wins because he has defeated the last remaining Super Power in the world, on his terms.  

Over the years, he has acquired enormous wealth at our expense and it is safely squirreled away in various countries. When viewed through this lens, Karzai’s latest rant makes perfect sense and is perfectly consistent with his behavior over the past decade. All the recent hype about Karzai being unbalanced is just that, hype. In reality, he is at the top of his game and has been from the beginning. 

The fatal mistake we made early on in Afghanistan was believing that we were all on the same team. We never were. This, in the end, is what separates a chess master from a mere checkers player. I suspect he would be a great poker player as well, playing against us, because we never learned when to hold them and when to fold them. Meanwhile, Americans keep dying there. Check and checkmate.  


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