With ongoing negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement that would govern the possible retention of a sizable US military presence in the country after 2014, Mr. Karzai's belligerent stance toward the US – also the principal financial backer of his government – seems an odd way to go about the negotiation.
But there he was over the weekend, accusing US Special Forces of involvement in torture and murder in Wardak, and ordering them out of the province within two weeks. That came about a week after Karzai banned the Afghan National Army (ANA) from calling on US and other international air support for ground operations after an incident in which he said 10 civilians were killed when Afghan intelligence called up a NATO airstrike.
While civilian casualties in urban areas have been a key driver of Afghan anger at both international forces and the Karzai government, asking Afghanistan's soldiers to fight without that kind of support will surely drive up their own casualty rates. It would also raise questions about what effect it will have on operations against the Taliban by the ANA. The chances that more territory will simply be ceded to the group as a consequence of this order, if he sticks to it, are high. (Writing for the Monitor from Kabul, Paige McClanahan fleshed out the risks of Karzai's action in Wardak.)
Perhaps that's Karzai's point. Most of the Taliban are drawn from the Pashtun ethnic group that Karzai himself belongs to, and with moves afoot to sharply reduce the international military presence (US President Obama said in his State of the Union Address that the current plan is to cut the US military presence from about 68,000 now to 34,000 by the end of the year) negotiation and accommodation are probably on his mind.
US objectives long ago were scaled back in Afghanistan with the recognition that the United State's longest war was not going to end in the total destruction of the Taliban. Warlords of all stripes – members of the Taliban, allies of Karzai – are going to have a seat at the table in determining Afghanistan's future after most international forces leave, and it's hard to fault Karzai for recognizing this reality.
And criticizing the Americans, hugely unpopular in the country after more than a decade of occupation, is smart politics. But it's also dangerous, because Karzai's grip on power rests on both NATO military power and the billions of dollars that flow into the country, which create patronage opportunities and employment for those around him, from the US and its NATO allies.
Wardak borders Kabul to the west, and has become a much more dangerous place in the past couple of years, with US commanders suspecting that attacks inside Kabul have been planned from the neighboring province. The Kabul-Kandahar highway, a key economic lifeline and source of resupply for foreign and local troops alike, crosses through the province, and for years local warlords have profited from convoy protection. Protesters in the provincial capital of Maidan Shahr blocked the highway for a day earlier this month after the body of a local university student, alleged to have been killed by US forces, was found dumped in a local river.
That incident appears to have been among those that caused Karzai to take action. A statement from the president's office over the weekend said: "A recent example in the province is an incident in which nine people were disappeared in an operation by this suspicious force and in a separate incident a student was taken away at night from his home, whose tortured body with throat cut was found two days later under a bridge," the statement added. "However, Americans reject having conducted any such operation and any involvement of their special force."
Is it possible that torture and murder is going on in Wardak? Almost certainly. Torture and murder are commonly deployed by Afghan powerbrokers and warlords on all sides of the Afghan conflict. Could US forces themselves be responsible? It's possible.
But more likely, if there's any truth to what Karzai contends, is that actions have been carried out by other informal militias who work with US Special Forces or formal Afghan commandos who do likewise.
The role of US Special Forces is, by and large, to work with and train foreign armies and militia groups. There have been persistent claims that local forces trained by US Special Forces have been involved in murder and torture down the years. A few thousand US Special Forces were involved in training roughly 16,000 Afghan Local Police (ALP), village-based paramilitary groups that have been accused of killing and torturing detainees, for much of last year and the year before, though that training was suspended to improve vetting after a rash of Afghans armed and trained by NATO killed their foreign colleagues.
Human Rights Watch alleges that ALP members have been involved in "killings, rape, and extortion of Afghan civilians" and explains the genesis of the groups this way:
The ALP was created in 2010 at the request of Gen David Petraeus, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan... The ALP is a loose network of local defence forces designed to mobilise and arm local civilians to defend their communities from the Taliban in areas where the national police and army have a limited presence. ALP recruits are mentored by foreign troops, most frequently US special forces, but in some parts of the country by troops from other nations, including Britain. They are nominally under the supervision of the Afghanistan National Police, but in practice they are sometimes no more than deputised gunmen loyal to a local warlord or members of violent local militias who are given a new uniform
The cooptation of gunmen loyal to local warlords has been consistently attempted throughout the Afghan war, and it makes sense at the local level: Motivated Afghan soldiers who know the local people and terrain can be fairly useful. But given that NATO's stated goal has been to build a strong central government, local tactical efforts have often moved counter to the ultimate goals.
The stakes in Wardak are pretty high, write Bill Ardolino and Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal:
Wardak province, which borders Kabul to the southwest, has been contested by the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, the al Qaeda-linked Taliban subgroup, despite US efforts to secure the province over the past several years. The Taliban have been in control of the Tangi Valley, which runs through Wardak, since the withdrawal of US forces from Combat Outpost Tangi in the spring of 2011. US troops turned over the base to the Afghan Army, which immediately abandoned it. The Taliban later released a videotape that showed hundreds of fighters and senior Taliban leaders massing at the abandoned base and conducting a tour.
Wardak has been the scene of numerous high-profile attacks by the two groups, particularly in 2011. The Taliban shot down a US Army Chinook helicopter in Sayyidabad on Aug. 6, 2011. Thirty-eight US and Afghan troops, including 17 US Navy SEALS from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, were killed in the crash. And on Sept. 10, 2011, the Taliban detonated a massive suicide bomb outside of Combat Outpost Sayyidabad, killing four Afghans and wounding more than 100 people, including 77 US soldiers. US commanders later blamed the attack on the Haqqani Network, a powerful al Qaeda subgroup.
President Karzai seems more concerned about the US role in the province, at least in public.The Obama administration is hoping to keep up to 15,000 troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014 as a "residual force" that would focus on training Afghan troops and counterterrorism operations. But one matter yet to be decided is whether Karzai, who is scheduled to step down after presidential elections in 2014, will grant ongoing immunity from US forces from Afghan prosecution. A refusal to do so would probably be politically popular, but would be a deal breaker for Obama, with the specter of US troops hauled before Afghanistan's frequently corrupt courts.
The question of immunity was what eventually ended the US military presence in Iraq. Will Karzai go that far? Friends I talk to who understand Afghanistan far better than me insist that Karzai and the people around him will make a deal, since a lose of US military and financial support would be catastrophic for them.
But recent signs from Karzai are that he's leaning in the other direction.