Afghan Leader Karzai Needs a Bit of the Kid Gloves Treatment: Barno

The Center for a New American Security held a press briefing on the occasion of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to D.C. with its counterinsurgency mafia yesterday, including president and reigning COIN evangelist John Nagl, Andrew Exum, and former Afghan commander ret. Gen. David Barno, who just recently joined CNAS.

I’ve been a fan of Barno since 2004, when I was in Afghanistan, he and Zalmay Khalilzad were running the show, and the counterinsurgency effort there to all appearances seemed to be working. How much of that was due to the fact that the Taliban were still very much on their heels after being scattered by the U.S. backed Northern Alliance and how much was due to the command pursuing COIN best practices, I’m not sure.

Barno said the tension between Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Amb. Karl Eikenberry is overplayed. He emphasized how complex Afghanistan is compared to Iraq, since so many other players - NATO, NGOs, China, India, Iran, Pakistan - are intimately involved in goings on there. Also, Eikenberry’s job is greatly complicated by the fact that the diplomatic side of the ledger doesn’t operate with the same clearly delineated chains of command that exist on the military side.

Knowing Karzai as well as he does, Barno said the Obama administration must focus on mending relations there; which of course is one of the reasons Karzai is in town. The moody Afghan leader doesn’t work well under pressure, Barno said, he needs much coddling. The stick approach is just not going to work with him. More carrot needed.

While a closer relationship between Obama and Karzai must be forged if this thing is going to work, he said the very cozy bond between Bush and Karzai, including video conferences every other week, allowed Karzai to repeatedly outflank the country team (Barno and Zal) if they were pushing him to move in a direction he didn’t like.

Barno said the U.S. must come up with a narrative of what exactly we’re trying to accomplish there that’s appealing to the Afghan people, beyond ensuring Afghanistan is not a sanctuary for Al Qaeda. That’s just not a big selling point for the locals. They want to know what the U.S. presence and relationship will look like five years from now and if they don’t see a commitment to aiding the country develop (which means lots of money) then they’ll begin casting about for a Plan B for when the U.S. departs.

Overall, his outlook on Afghanistan is guarded. He said it’s premature to judge the effectiveness of the Afghan “surge” because it’s only at the midpoint and reinforcements are still arriving. From a purely military viewpoint, the momentum has clearly shifted in the U.S.-ISAF favor. Whether those gains can be translated into lasting political improvements in Kabul and the local level remains to be seen.

-- Greg Grant

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