The Obama-Karzai Meeting: But Who Really Gets to Decide Afghanistan’s Future?

The end-game in the war torn country is complex--and troop levels may be the simplest piece of the puzzle

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

Karzai reviews the honor guards during a ceremony welcoming him to the Pentagon on Jan. 10, 2013, in Arlington, Va.

Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai meet at the White House on Jan. 11 to discuss the future of Afghanistan beyond the 2014 U.S. troop withdrawal. But neither man will have the last word over the fate of that beleaguered country beyond next year.

Karzai, for his part, is constitutionally forbidden to seek re-election when his term expires in 2014. And even if he were to manipulate the political system in order to elevate a proxy figure to rule on his behalf — which his critics suspect he plans to do — his power, limited as it is, has always depended on the presence of tens of thousands of Western troops to fight off his Taliban foes. Those troops are leaving too; the U.S. and its NATO allies have set a hard deadline for ending what had threatened to become an open-ended commitment if withdrawal remained tied to security conditions on the ground. Still, the prospect of their departure is prompting fears that the entire edifice created by the Western alliance over 11 years could collapse — and it obviously further diminishes Washington’s leverage over Afghan political choices.

The U.S. withdrawal plan is based on conditions at home rather than those in Afghanistan. War-weary, cash-strapped Western nations are no longer willing to sustain a counterinsurgency effort that has long been spinning its wheels. Their distaste for the war is reinforced by the 47 attacks by uniformed Afghan personnel that killed more than 60 Western troops last year alone.

(MORE: Afghan Troop Numbers: How Low Can the U.S. Go?)

The surge ordered by President Obama in 2009 that took U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 100,000 has ended — troop levels are back at a presurge 66,000 — without altering the strategic landscape. “There has been no meaningful military progress since the end of 2010,” wrote former Pentagon official Anthony Cordesman, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in early January.

The surge didn’t achieve its goal of inflicting sufficient hurt on the Taliban to force it to negotiate on favorable terms. That’s why Karzai and Obama must now seek a strategy for managing an ever perilous Afghan security situation without the U.S. combat advantage.

Media coverage of Karzai’s visit has focused on the Obama Administration’s internal debate over how many troops the U.S. might keep in Afghanistan beyond 2014 and on what terms. The White House on Jan. 7 signaled that one option was to leave none — a stance that would also warn Karzai against overestimating his leverage in negotiations on autonomy and legal immunity for any residual force. “Karzai comes to this week’s discussions convinced that the United States desperately needs long-term military bases in Afghanistan,” wrote Lieut. General David Barno, the senior U.S. officer who once advised the Afghan President. “But Karzai has it wrong.” As a result of “shrinking budgets and crumpled public support for the war,” Barno wrote, a “vigorous debate has been under way inside the administration in advance of Karzai’s visit to sort out a minimalist approach that will protect long-term U.S. interests in the region, but do so with the absolute leanest outlay of dollars and troops.”

What becomes clear from reports of the Administration’s debate over the size and scope of a residual force — well covered by my colleague Mark Thompson — is that after 2014 the U.S. will likely have fewer than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, a number that suggests their primary focus would be going after al-Qaeda-type groups. While advocates of a smaller force believe a “lighter footprint” can accomplish U.S. goals in Afghanistan,  critics believe it may court disaster.

(PHOTOS: Afghanistan Now: Photos by Yuri Kozyrev)

“The Obama Administration will no doubt promise that the U.S. will continue to provide assistance to the Afghan mlitary in addition to continuing counterrorism operations in Afghanistan,” wrote Robert and Kimberley Kagan, intellectual authors of the Bush Administration’s 2007 Iraq surge, in the Wall Street Journal this week. “But the military reality is that we cannot conduct either mission at the force level the president is considering.”

Even a narrow counterterrorist focus requires more bases and air-support capability and quick-reaction ground forces, they argued. And losing embedded U.S. troops and air support would rapidly shrink the Afghan army’s capabilities. “Brave as the Afghan soldiers are,” the Kagans warned, “they simply cannot stand and fight without U.S. support.” A Pentagon report released last month found that only one of 23 Afghan army battalions can engage in combat independently of direct U.S. support.

Still, indications are that the Obama Administration may be calling time on a policy of deploying tens of thousands of troops in the Afghan government’s fight against the Taliban. The President’s pick for Defense Secretary, Senator Chuck Hagel, publicly opposed Obama’s Afghan surge in 2009, and he has made clear since that he believes that opposition was vindicated by events.

The decision on troop levels may not be made for some months yet, but whatever its size, it’s clear that the force left in Afghanistan won’t be tasked with winning the war against the Taliban. If 100,000 U.S. troops couldn’t do that, fewer than 10,000 won’t be asked to try. And there are serious doubts over whether the Afghan security forces in which the U.S. has invested some $50 billion can hold the line once American combat support ends. A number of observers fear that much of the south and east of the country would fall under Taliban control if the war raged on without U.S. involvement, even areas ostensibly cleared during the surge.

(MORE: Afghanistan’s IED Complex: Inside the Taliban Bombmaking Industry)

Because of corruption and cronyism, Karzai’s government has palpably failed to secure the loyalty of much of its civilian population. That political weakness — combined with the economic impact of a Western withdrawal that will leave a large number of Afghans jobless — amplifies fears in Kabul over a descent into mayhem. Elections that Karzai will oversee to pick a new President inspire little confidence that the disastrous dynamic of incompetent governance will be reversed as long as the war rages on.

That has left Washington facing a choice, Cordesman suggested, between “an uncertain effort at a settlement with the Taliban that [the insurgency] so far firmly and decisively rejects” and “an open-ended U.S. commitment to supporting the Afghan government, as well as a mix of Afghan forces, which … will not have any army that is really ready to assume true responsibility for Afghan security until sometime after 2016, and whose police are unlikely to succeed at any point in the future.”

If there are grounds for optimism, in the view of some analysts, they may rest on the Karzai government’s ability to make peace with the Taliban rather than on its capacity to wage war on the insurgents. Karzai’s own High Peace Council late last year proposed a peace process that gives a leading role to Pakistan — a turnabout for a government that has fiercely opposed Pakistani involvement in Afghan affairs. The proposed “Afghan Peace Roadmap to 2015” would also see the Taliban effectively invited to share power in Kabul and to appoint the governors of regions in which it is strongest, all while supposedly “respecting” the Afghan constitution. As alarming as that proposal is to many concerned for human rights and democracy in Afghanistan, it may only be an opening bid. After all, even if the Taliban wants a deal, it may not feel sufficient pressure to make one on Karzai’s terms.

Still, Pakistan, whose involvement is critical to the prospects of any peace process, appears to be buying in thus far, perhaps recognizing a historic opportunity to shape the post-U.S. environment on its western flank. Pakistan late last year released a number of Taliban prisoners who had been detained for talking to the Karzai regime. Pakistan’s military establishment has provided sanctuary to the Taliban leadership precisely because it needs them to secure Pakistani interests in Kabul and is therefore hostile to any negotiation process from which it is excluded.

Journalist and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid  reported last month that a serious debate is under way within the Taliban over whether to seek a negotiated solution or hold out for a military victory. The imminent departure of the U.S. and its allies has emboldened those pushing the harder line, but that is counteracted by a growing war-weariness within the insurgency and the communities that sustain it. That may not produce a negotiated resolution to the conflict anytime soon, but Rashid suspects it could prompt a truce: “Any talks will need months, possibly years, but everyone — even the Taliban — would like to see a cease-fire before 2014.”

It’s safe to assume, then, that Obama and Karzai have a lot more to discuss than troop levels, although the changing military balance will inevitably be a prime consideration affecting the calculations of some of the key players in a decades-old civil war.

MORE: The Loneliness of the Afghan President: Karzai on His Own