Afghanistan Is Worth the Trouble. But Hamid Karzai May Not Be.

I continue to believe that securing Afghanistan against the Taliban and against terrorist groups is vital to the national security interests of the United States. Ditching Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from the country led to disastrous developments, including–but not limited to–9/11. And if the Taliban are able to govern substantial swaths of the country–or all of it–they may very well let terrorist groups like al Qaeda come right back in. Yes, I know; there are those who believe that after sustaining over a decade of military punishment at the hands of the United States, the Taliban may not be all that eager to let terrorists back in and get America angry again in the process, but if the Taliban are able to outlast the United States and its Afghan allies in the current war, they will be disposed to believe that they can do the same thing in any future wars as well. And why shouldn’t the Taliban think that? After all, insurgents have returned to Fallujah, a city American soldiers fought and died to keep out of terrorist hands. Anyone see the United States doing anything to secure Fallujah anew? Anyone think that the Taliban haven’t noticed the lack of American action?

So, Afghanistan matters to the United States strategically. And so, in the best of all possible worlds, the United States will do whatever it can in order to safeguard Afghanistan against the Taliban, and safeguard American security in the process.

But it ought to go without saying that American interests in Afghanistan–and American willingness to preserve those interests–actually do have limits. And Hamid Karzai may be pushing the United States towards those limits:

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has been engaged in secret contacts with the Taliban about reaching a peace agreement without the involvement of his American and Western allies, further corroding already strained relations with the United States.

The secret contacts appear to help explain a string of actions by Mr. Karzai that seem intended to antagonize his American backers, Western and Afghan officials said. In recent weeks, Mr. Karzai has continued to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement with Washington that he negotiated, insisted on releasing hardened Taliban militants from prison and distributed distorted evidence of what he called American war crimes.

The clandestine contacts with the Taliban have borne little fruit, according to people who have been told about them. But they have helped undermine the remaining confidence between the United States and Mr. Karzai, making the already messy endgame of the Afghan conflict even more volatile. Support for the war effort in Congress has deteriorated sharply, and American officials say they are uncertain whether they can maintain even minimal security cooperation with Mr. Karzai’s government or its successor after coming elections.

They say that you can only negotiate peace with your enemies, and I agree. As such, it is not as though I categorically rule out any and all kinds of peace negotiations with the Taliban, loathsome though they are. But secret talks between Karzai and the Taliban mean that American interests are not represented. Any negotiations between the two will focus on Karzai’s own attempts to save his political skin, and the Taliban’s desire to expand its territorial holdings, and thus, its political power. Anyone who believes that Karzai will repay American loyalty to him (loyalty that is over a decade old) by fighting for a deal that makes the United States happy ought to be laughed out of polite and civilized company, right before being fitted for one of those reversible white jackets and put into a padded room. Anyone who believes that the same Afghan president who is trying to make the United States look like a nation of war criminals will be with us in crunch time is simply not dealing with reality. As the New York Times story indicates, Afghans themselves are bewildered by Karzai’s actions, as they are certainly not advancing Afghan interests. If Karzai won’t put Afghanistan over his own political survival, what makes anyone think he will look out for his American allies? He certainly hasn’t done a bang-up job of being a friend to Washington in recent years. Indeed, when all is said and done, perhaps it is safe to say that he never did a bang-up job of being a friend to Washington.

I would hope that the United States will be able to continue to work for a stable Afghanistan, if only because doing so will indeed advance American interests and security. But in order to do so, it may have to go over Hamid Karzai’s head and do a more substantial job of cultivating successors to Karzai. As Karzai is coming to the end of his presidency, that task may be easier to accomplish than it was in the past. If the United States can find better partners with whom to work, great. If not . . . well, as important as Afghanistan may be, the United States cannot expend blood and treasure in a country whose political leadership is busy undermining American strategic goals.