Today’s example of American foreign policy weirdness (about our allies)

As usual on the FM website, we look at the actual words — not the spin overlaid on them by media doctors.  Here are the first few volleys in this game, followed by a brief analysis.

(1)  The initial outrage

Remarks on April 1 by Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, spoke to employees of the state election commission.  This was later broadcast on local television.  Here are excerpts from the New York Times and Reuters stories (they give no transcript).  He’s building domestic support by portraying himself as standing up to his foreign “allies.”  Like us.  They people who put whom in power, without whose support he’d probably need a fast flight out of Kabul.  It’s a sorry spot for any national leader.  Let’s try to hear his actual words, rather than read the US media’s carping. 

  • “Foreigners will make excuses, they do not want us to have a parliamentary election.  They want parliament to be weakened and battered, and for me to be an ineffective president and for parliament to be ineffective.”
  • “You have gone through the kind of elections during which you were not only threatened with terror, you also faced massive interference from foreigners.  Some embassies also tried to bribe the members of the commission.”
  • “There is no doubt that the fraud was very widespread, but this fraud was not committed by Afghans, it was committed by foreigners.  This fraud was committed by Galbraith, this fraud was committed by Morillon and this fraud was committed by embassies.  In this situation there is a thin curtain between invasion and cooperation-assistance.”
  • Reuters:  He singled out Peter Galbraith, the American former deputy of the U.N. mission in Kabul, sacked after accusing his boss of turning a blind eye to fraud, and French General Philippe Morillon, head of an EU vote monitoring mission.  He accused Galbraith of telling an election official he would be “digging himself an early grave” if Karzai was declared first round winner and said Morillon had tried to block the announcement of results to force Karzai to accept a political alliance.
  • “In this situation there is a thin curtain between invasion and cooperation-assistance. {if the perception spread that Western forces were invaders and the Afghan government their mercenaries, the insurgency} “could become a national resistance.”
  • NYT: Mr. Karzai also sharply criticized The New York Times, the BBC, The Times of London and CNN, all of whom he accused of spreading the accusations of fraud:  “They know the election was right, but on a daily basis they are call me a fraudulent president in order to pressure me.  Every day my dignity as a president of this country is being attacked. The New York Times and their papers, though, they know the election was right, but on a daily basis they call me a fraudulent president in order to pressure me and put mental pressure on me.”
  • NYT: At times Mr. Karzai almost seemed to be having a conversation with himself, saying that he needed to let go of his anger over the election, but then was unable to do so:  “We have our national interest, and by confronting the foreigners our national interest will be damaged.  We should put the reality and the interests of our people before us and go forward towards the future. But we have a knot in our heart; our dignity and bravery has been damaged and stepped on.”
  • NYT:  “These foreigners came to me several times asking me to bring reform. When I asked what reform means, it means to sack Mr. Ludin and Mr. Najafi,” said Mr. Karzai, referring to Azizullah Ludin, the commission’s chairman, and Daoud Ali Najafi, the head of the commission’s secretariat, who were present at the speech and whom he lionized several times over, lauding their patriotism and courage.  He went on to say that he might be forced to comply with the demand, but he promised that the two men “will go to other major national posts.”

Response by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:

“Obviously some of the comments by President Karzai are troubling, they are cause for real and genuine concern. The amount of resources that have been dedicated to both deal with extremists in Afghanistan as well as to set up the type of government necessary at all levels.” {ABC News}

More interesting response by Winslow Wheeler (Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information):

“Troubling? Not so. Quite helpful, I believe. It’s just a matter of objectives.”

We have our objectives for the war.  Karzai has his.  As many experts have told us, these don’t overlap very well.

(2)  Follow-up remarks

Karzai’s Saturday speech to members of Parliament

Karzai explains further to the BBC

“What I said about the election was all true,” he said in his first public remarks since the comments. “It does not reduce from our partnership; it adds to it.” He said his warning to the West that it could be seen as an invader if it did not change its behaviour was a message to allies that their relationship had to be a partnership between sovereign nations.  (BBC, 5 April 2010)

Return volley by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:

“The remarks are genuinely troubling. The substance of the remarks, as have been looked into by many, are obviously not true. … On behalf of the American people, we’re frustrated with the remarks.” (Reuters)

(3)  Analysis of Karzai’s actions:  it’s all about legitimacy

Excerpt from “The Ghost of Diem“, Scott Horton, blog of Harper’s Magazine, 5 April 2010:

One important point went missing in the major U.S. media coverage of the remarks to the parliamentarians in Kabul: Karzai was stressing that the Taliban is under the control of Pakistan, and they need to become truly independent from Pakistani influence if some reconciliation is to take place. That apparently is the context in which Karzai said he might join the Taliban.

Karzai’s troubles with his allies all boil down to his sense that he and his government are not sovereign in Afghanistan. They appear to exercise little control or influence over tactical military operations. Complaints about the heavy use of firepower against civilians — usually voiced after a bombing raid has struck a funeral or wedding party with great loss of innocent life—seem to go unacknowledged. Military mistakes are often covered up with an aggressive official disinformation campaign. The US is operating a prison system in Afghanistan with no obvious connection to Afghanistan’s law or courts, including the CIA’s infamous Salt Pit and at least one black site at Bagram run by the Joint Special Operations Command. Even the American Justice Department has run amok in Afghanistan, operating an anti-corruption program which has repeatedly swept up innocent persons and has used harsh and heavy-handed techniques, including renditions. Karzai’s own brother, Ahmed Wali, appears to be a major target of these operations. These facts appear to proclaim to the Afghan people that the United States and not the Karzai government exercises sovereignty.

But notwithstanding all these grievances, it’s clear that Karzai’s focal worry is simply that he will be overthrown by his supposed allies. As Levin notes, there are a number of figures behind the scenes who have advocated just that, including Peter W. Galbraith, who apparently lost his U.N. post for doing so a bit too publicly.

Afterword

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