Karzai warns NATO over air strikes, but are there other options?

Afghan leader Hamid Karzai issues another ultimatum over deadly air strikes. But a shift in NATO strategy might result in even more civilian casualties.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday. Angered by civilian casualties, Karzai said Tuesday he will no longer allow NATO airstrikes on houses, issuing his strongest statement yet against strikes that the military alliance says are key to its war on Taliban insurgents.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, following his most recent broadside against NATO’s operations in his country, might want to consider the old admonition to be careful what you wish for.

On Tuesday Mr. Karzai said that NATO air strikes targeting Afghan houses must stop, or the international military operations led by the United States will be considered “an occupying force” in the country “against the will of the Afghan people.”

Karzai has issued such ultimatums before, particularly in response to incidents of civilians dying in NATO operations. But this one comes as the White House launches into a review of Afghan policy that will decide the size and tempo of a drawdown of US troops set to begin in July.

After the surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan that President Obama opted for in December 2009, some officials and experts in Afghan policy say the president could now choose to shift toward a policy that Vice President Joe Biden preferred all along: one that relies more on air power and special operations forces, and much less on thousands of soldiers on the ground.

Such a shift to what some call a “stand off” strategy might indeed lighten the sense of “occupation” that Karzai refers to, but increased reliance on air power could mean more of the kinds of incidents that Karzai was reacting to Tuesday.

“Clearly shifting to a ‘stand off’ strategy would, if anything, increase the chances of civilian casualties,” says Steven Metz, chairman of the Regional Strategy Department at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, Pa. “But if we refocus on the goal of preventing Afghanistan from serving as a power projection base for extremists rather than trying to make it a place free from extremists, criticism or even hostility from the Afghan government would, from a strategic perspective, matter less.”

Both Obama and President Bush largely ignored Karzai’s criticisms of US operations and the US presence in the country, seeing them as designed for domestic consumption, Dr. Metz says. But the question now, he adds, will be if Congress and the US public do the same – or in fact have a more visceral reaction to Karzai’s threats, given the country’s investment in blood and treasure in Afghanistan.

“What may be changing is that the deference to the administration by the public and Congress may be declining,” Metz says. “If so, Karzai's criticism may end up having a real effect.”

Currently the US is spending about $10 billion a month in Afghanistan, on everything from counter-insurgency operations to Afghan Army development and training and civilian development projects. But many experts and officials say spending simply cannot continue at that pace, given the American focus on cutting the national deficit.

Where Metz says he agrees with Vice President Biden is on the idea that US strategic goals in Afghanistan can be accomplished much more “efficiently” than they are under the current counterinsurgency strategy with 100,00-plus US troops on the ground.

“Somewhere along the line we lost sight of the fact that our strategic objective was not [to] prevent an extremist presence in Afghanistan, but to prevent Afghanistan from giving extremists a power projection capability they could use against the United States,” he says.

What Karzai might consider, however, is that a shift by the US and NATO to a lighter footprint could actually lead to more of the kinds of air operations against insurgents that the Afghan leader finds so objectionable.

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