Hamid Karzai is Afghanistan’s president, and until that changes, U.S. and other coalition forces have to take his demands seriously, even if they’re not sure what he is up to.
His most recent demand came Sunday; it was an order that U.S. Special Operations forces stop operating in Wardak Province, which is southwest of Kabul and busy with Taliban fighters and other insurgents. U.S. forces know Wardak too well. In August 2011, it was the site of the single deadliest incident for U.S. troops in more than a decade of war, when the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing 30 Americans as well as eight Afghans.
Mr. Karzai, saying he was responding to complaints from local village leaders, accused Afghan units trained by special operations personnel of harassing, torturing and even killing local residents, in the process inciting hatred.
A NATO spokesman, German Brig. Gen. Guenter Katz, said a previous inquiry had turned up no evidence associated with Mr. Karzai’s allegations, but added that further investigation is warranted.
Mostly what Mr. Karzai’s order seems to do is shore up his authority at a time when U.S. military involvement in his country is winding down. Sunday’s order, which came as a surprise to U.S. military officials, was the second in the last 10 days. On Feb. 16, he issued an order restricting Afghan forces from calling in NATO air strikes, expressing concern over civilian casualties. That concern prevailed over the fact that air strikes have proved an effective weapon against insurgents.
Publicly, at least, U.S. representatives are respectful of Mr. Karzai. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that Mr. Karzai’s perception of how “things have gone or might be changed” ought to be taken seriously, and that negotiations involving U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the combat mission formally ends in 2014 are continuing.
It’s worth noting that U.S. troops who remain after the combat mission ends will almost certainly be special operations personnel whose functions will include training Afghans. It is those units and the tactics they deploy and teach that Mr. Karzai seems most uncomfortable with.
Mr. Karzai has been a fickle partner, someone the United States has had to trust — at least to a point — despite the fact that his ambitions and corrupt tendencies have been among problems the United States has had to deal with while trying to overcome the Taliban and improve Afghanistan’s prospects for stability and peace.