Understanding Karzai: Building NATO’s Strategy Bridge in Afghanistan

President Hamid Karzai’s release of 65 prisoners in mid-February from a prison facility north of Kabul drew harsh words from leaders throughout the NATO alliance. His behavior over the past decade has been a source of confusion and frequent frustration for Afghanistan’s foreign benefactors. Critics have attacked Karzai as being mercurial and vain, jeopardizing Afghan national interests for his own petty purposes. The ongoing policy standoff over a bi-lateral security agreement (BSA) has only deepened bitterness toward the Afghan president among his many detractors, but the outrage over Karzai’s actions misses the point. The furor in Washington over Karzai’s intransigence has diverted the discussion from a necessary reflection on what must be accomplished, and for what purposes, to a fixation on determining the means to applied (i.e., troop levels).[1]

Max Boot, in a Commentary Magazine op-ed, argued that setting the US troop level below 10,000 would doom NATO’s prospects for success in Afghanistan, but he wrongly assumes that military power is the requisite capacity for overcoming the weight of history. If anything, the past twelve years have confirmed the inadequacy of counterinsurgency practices for places as long troubled as Afghanistan has been. NATO policymakers and planners must escape such tactical myopia by understanding the political-social context confronting President Karzai before rushing to judgment over the significance of the BSA and troop levels because it is the same Afghan context that will determine whether foreign advisors matter at all in the end.[2]

President Hamid Karzai, left, meets local leaders in Lashkar Gah, in Helmand province (AP)

Karzai’s decisions are symptomatic of the political milieu and geopolitical situation of Afghanistan that limit politics in that country. As much as has changed in Afghanistan, much remains the same. Kabul extends its control over the many districts of Afghanistan through its security forces and bureaucracies, but, more importantly, it holds them in line through the mechanisms of patronage. There is little reason to doubt that Karzai, and several of those running to replace him, dream of grander visions where common bonds of nation and economy allow for the exchange of favor, position, and accommodation to be replaced by rule of law and impartiality in the distribution of public goods. At the same time, the requisite foundation for such an Afghanistan has not existed over the past decade nor is it likely to manifest in the near future.

Hamid Karzai must do more than rationally calculate the potential cost of alienating his sponsors. He and the members of his network must also consider the best path to surviving the vicissitudes of foreign assistance given the perpetual threat they face from within, as well as from outside, their borders. While NATO members may take for granted their own commitment to the future of the Afghan state, the historical memory of Karzai and others suggests a more tenuous bond between Kabul and its benefactors. The Afghan president has been gambling that he can escape the worn paths of previous Afghan heads of state by neither submitting Afghanistan to its current benefactors as a dependent rentier state nor shutting off its government from the outside world. It is a bold approach that may yet prove to be Karzai’s undoing, but it is at the same time completely rational.[3]

Karzai will not, and his immediate successors cannot, embrace the US-set agenda of liberal reform without risking the delicate balance that exists between GIRoA’s fractious constituencies and equally variegated insurgency. Afghanistan lacks the economic and governance foundation to integrate national life and create the physical and political space to establish meaningful sovereignty. Without such sovereign autonomy, no Afghan head of state has the wherewithal to strike an uncompromising stance against the Taliban or the Haqqani network without running the risk of rendering the state ungovernable or placing it in a condition of perpetual siege. The patronage system exists for a reason. A more ambitious extension of central power that abandons the centralized distribution of wealth and influence would splinter the fragile ruling coalition that has emerged over the past decade.

The fissures amongst leading Afghans retain much of their past vigor despite the progress toward national cohesion. Afghanistan’s economy lacks the maturity and strength to support a domestic tax base that could fund the government and its apparatus, including its security forces, even without the added cost of patronage. Such internal weaknesses are magnified in significance by the ongoing regional disputes that have, in the past, ultimately determined the fate of the Afghan state. In the absence of a regional consensus and great power sponsor committed to its sovereignty, Afghanistan must make its separate peace with rivals inside and outside of its porous borders. Any alternative prognosis must necessarily assume a more sanguine assessment of US commitment to Afghan well-being than most Afghan elites are willing to uncritically embrace. NATO, as a collective and as individual member states, has made its assurances to Kabul that it is committed to the future of Afghans, but it has to be acknowledged that such promises are tainted from an Afghan perspective by the failures of the past and trends of the present.

Afghanistan’s allies have provided Pakistan billions of dollars in aid through the Cold War and during the present conflict in support of their national interests. Over the past twelve years, the US and her allies have emphasized their focus on transnational terrorism as much as they have highlighted the need to support the Afghan people and their government. With the locus of organizations such as al-Qaeda transitioning to a distributed structure, the importance of Central Asia, Afghanistan in particular, has declined for the NATO powers, and this reality cannot have been lost on Afghan ruling elites. The rhetoric and headlines in the NATO nations have moved away from Afghanistan, and with a decline in public attention goes with it the commitment to see to the end Afghanistan’s political evolution.[4]

The frustrations the US and her NATO allies have experienced with President Karzai are not merely the manifest foibles of an individual. They are evidence of NATO’s failure to rationalize its strategy to the political reality of Afghanistan.

Focusing on Karzai (or his successor) alone thus ignores the conditions that determine the range of options that have bound Afghan heads of state since the age of Western colonial expansion. The frustrations the US and her NATO allies have experienced with President Karzai are not merely the manifest foibles of an individual. They are evidence of NATO’s failure to rationalize its strategy to the political reality of Afghanistan. Rather than using what works in Afghanistan to build towards an indigenous ideal, the Alliance and its partners brought their own progressivist vision and imposed it on the nascent state without the benefit of an economic foundation or extant Afghan elite requisite for such a vision. The dogma of counterinsurgency doctrine, with its militarization of governance and development activities, has led policymakers to overvalue the contribution of military advisors. The predominance of military forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan has obscured the inadequacy of available military means and political will for a multi-decade commitment to security force assistance in Afghanistan.[5]

The best guarantee of Afghanistan’s stability and prosperity will not be physical NATO assistance to the Afghan security forces. Substantive advising efforts in the security institutions of Afghanistan would do much to help the Afghan security forces, but they are not the necessary input that will get Afghanistan onto a truly independent footing. It will be the continued provision of funding and materiel to those forces and to the ministries of GIRoA that are requisite for Afghanistan to escape its cycle of disruption in the modern era. Institutional enablers, such as logistics at the national-level, require more than just technical core competencies, which can be discretely taught. They also demand a range of political-social evolutions in order to be effective and enduring. Simple things like reliable and consistent reporting of inventories require a commitment to standardized process over personal relationships that can only come from within Afghan society. Such shifts in value systems cannot be taught or coached by advisors. The emphasis on advisors distorts the policy-strategy discourse by making it about their numbers and marginalizing more fundamental and necessary precursors for institutional maturity in the policy approach.

Casting advisor numbers as the sum of our commitment, however, could lead policymakers down an errant path where policy chases after tactics rather than leading and informing strategy.

Given the limited potential of military advisors in Afghanistan, military strategists must be careful to not exaggerate their national consequence for national interests even as they articulate the contribution that advising can make to the maturation of Afghan security forces. Having the critical mass of advisors is important to the pace and coherence of further developing those forces, but it is at best a contributing factor to stability and prosperity of the Afghan state and society. Casting advisor numbers as the sum of our commitment, however, could lead policymakers down an errant path where policy chases after tactics rather than leading and informing strategy.[6]

NATO policymakers and strategists must begin with the understanding that lasting change, conducive to alliance and Afghan interests, must come from an inductive process lived out by Afghan leaders. The tactical gains being made by advisor teams will be ephemeral or illusory without the maturation of vertical political and social bonds that supersede the ethnic-regional alliances that have dominated modern Afghanistan. This means that NATO members should exploit the centrality of Kabul and the patronage networks rather than shun them. The dependency on foreign support continues to have a distorting effect on the Afghan state and its society, but the US and its partners have an opportunity in this moment. They can use the commitments of the Tokyo and Chicago conferences to preserve a unifying relationship and prevent a repeat of Afghanistan’s fragmentation during the 1990s as regional warlords sought the sponsorship of rival benefactors.[7]

A Marine with Afghan soldiers at the ANA base, Camp Garmsir.

Rather than using the promise of foreign financial and material aid as a lever to keep NATO forces on the ground in Afghanistan, the formula should be reversed. Advisors should be presented as evidence of the international community’s enduring commitment to the pride and prosperity of Afghanistan. It is the latter formulation that is critical to delivering Afghans from the curse of disunity and corruption. Nothing is certain in the course of political and social evolution least of all in a nexus of competing agendas like Afghanistan, but Afghan elites and much of the rural populace are genuinely tired of endemic conflict. There is sufficient will for change, but it must be sustained through the bread and water of foreign aid and overt political commitment.

NATO members have sacrificed a great deal in Afghanistan. They must resist the temptation to allow obvious slights and insults from driving policy and strategy to squander that sacrifice. Seeing Karzai’s persona from a balanced perspective is essential to reframing NATO’s policy and strategy in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014. There is a way for the national interests of both Afghanistan and NATO member states to be jointly met, but it requires a long view, seeing the future in terms of generations and tempering our ambitions for immediate action and results.

Robert Mihara is a U.S. Army strategist and unapologetic Aggie. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.


[1] Peter Tomsen, “What is Hamid Karzai Thinking?: And should we even care anymore?,” POLITICO (10 February 2014): http://www.politico.com[accessed 12 February 2014] and Fred Kaplan, “Hamid Karzai Isn’t Crazy,” Slate (13 February 2014): http://www.slate.com [accessed 14 February 2014].

[2] Max Boot, “Afghanistan After Karzai,” Commentary (26 February 2014): http://www.commentarymagazine.com [accessed 2 March 2014].

[3] Barnett Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2002), 81.

[4] Tomsen, “What is Hamid Karzai Thinking?”

[5] Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, “What Leaving Afghanistan Will Cost,” Snapshot, Foreign Affairs (9 May 2012): http://www.foreignaffairs.com[accessed 12 February 2014].

[6] Douglas Porch, Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), 234-45.

[7] Robert Lamb and Brooke Shawn, Political Governance and Strategy in Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: CSIS, April 2012), ix-xiii.