After months of heightened tensions between U.S. and Afghan leaders, President Karzai is in Washington this week and will meet with President Obama tomorrow. Managing ties with the divisive leader is critical to U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. Unveiled last December, Obama’s new strategy sent more troops to the country and offers a general timetable for transferring military responsibilities to a credible Afghan partner, all in the context of a planned withdrawal of U.S. forces to begin in July 2011.

In a new Q&A, Gilles Dorronsoro, recently back from Afghanistan, analyzes Washington’s relationship with Karzai, the prospects of success for America’s new military strategy, and reasons for talking with the Taliban. Dorronsoro believes that while the United States has no choice but to deal with Karzai, the Afghan leader’s power is falling and the coalition’s military strategy is at an impasse. “With Karzai in decline and the Taliban gaining strength, Washington’s best option is to begin negotiations with the Taliban.”

What is the significance of President Karzai’s visit to Washington? What is on the agenda?

The most important thing about President Karzai’s visit is that it’s happening. A couple of weeks ago, the relationship between the U.S. and Afghan governments was so tense that Karzai’s trip to Washington was in doubt. The visit is a sign that both President Obama and President Karzai want to restart their relationship and begin looking forward. This trip is also an opportunity to show the international community that everyone can work together.

During the high-level meetings between the Afghan delegation and U.S. national security team, the United States will want to discuss efforts to reduce corruption and obtain further explanation of Karzai’s plans to negotiate with the Taliban and proposed peace and reintegration agreement. And Afghan officials will want the U.S. administration to clarify the strategy and goals of the upcoming offensive in Kandahar and detail its long-term plans. 

What is the status of the relationship between President Karzai and the Obama administration?

Fundamentally, the relationship is not a good one. Karzai enjoyed a close personal relationship with President Bush and to a certain extent, Karzai was chosen because he enjoyed ties to powerful players in the Bush administration. Karzai does not have the same support from the Obama administration.

Last year during the presidential elections, the United States was not clear about what it wanted. The U.S. administration did not really support President Karzai’s reelection, but it did not back an alternative candidate. U.S. officials did not try to get closer to Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s most significant challenger, nor did they back his candidacy.

Instead, the United States was tough on Karzai during the campaign—publically calling for change and better leadership. There were a great deal of negative stories in the U.S. media detailing Afghan corruption and possible links between the Karzai government and illicit drug trade. This led to questions about Karzai’s reliability and the viability of the bilateral partnership. For Karzai, it was an extremely difficult period both at home and with the United States.

After the election, the idea that there could be trust between President Obama and President Karzai was dead. The two leaders now have a business relationship, but there is no personal trust.

Karzai also has rocky relations with key personnel on Obama’s team. Ambassador Eikenberry has publicly questioned the reliability of Karzai and suggested that the United States should also work directly with other Afghan leaders. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has a tenuous relationship with Karzai. Still, General McChrystal publicly supports Karzai, most probably because he needs Karzai’s support for the offensive in the South.

There is structural tension, however, that has nothing to do with personal relationships. While Karzai wants to prevent civilian casualties, increased casualties will be inevitable with more fighting, even with a concerted effort by the United States to avoid them.

Futhermore, the U.S. military is operating more and more independently from the Afghan government on the ground. For example, despite giving the Afghan military a symbolic role in the Marjah offensive, the United States is making moves on its own.

Does Washington have strong influence over Karzai?

Even though the Afghan government is dependent on the United States, it is a much more balanced relationship than one would think.

Since the last presidential election, the ability for the United States to put pressure on the Afghan government and influence President Karzai’s actions has been limited. Karzai is less dependent on the international coalition, but more dependent on his allies in Afghanistan. During the election in 2009 he needed to mobilize local support and he is now paying back favors.

This means that Karzai is less and less under the influence of the United States. Despite U.S. pressure, Karzai and his allies do not want to change their ways and implement reforms in order to build strong institutions and establish credible local partners. They are making a lot of money with the military surge—there are more contracts with local companies and those controlling private security companies are earning more money.

Can the West work with the current government in Afghanistan? Can U.S. leaders work around Karzai?

With the United States dependent on President Karzai as much as Karzai is dependent on the coalition, the United States does not have a choice but to work with Karzai–at least in the short term.. Karzai was recently reelected, and despite it being an unfair election, the coalition needs to maintain a working relationship with him.

The real problem is the slow deterioration of the Afghan government at the local level. There is a high amount of corruption in local administrations and it is clear that reliable, influential, and local partners within the Afghan government are disappearing.
So the question is not really if the United States should work with Karzai or not—there is no choice at this point—but how success can be achieved on the ground when local administrations are not functional. The failure of U.S. forces to work directly with tribes is at least an indication that their circumvention of the Afghan government is not working.

How successful can President Karzai be in the coming years? Is he a reliable partner?

When traveling around Afghanistan, it is clear that Karzai enjoys little support and continues to lose ground politically. Karzai’s legitimacy is weakening, his political base is shrinking, and Afghan institutions are eroding. This is a post-democratic Afghanistan and President Karzai is not going to be a reliable partner in the long term. 

Meanwhile, the Taliban are getting stronger and stronger. And the Taliban will be even stronger next year. With Karzai in decline and the Taliban gaining strength, Washington’s best option is to begin negotiations with the Taliban.

How effective is current U.S. policy in Afghanistan? Have additional forces led to gains on the ground?

Current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has not been successful and the security and political situations across the country continue to deteriorate. The coalition has failed to defeat the Taliban and there simply aren’t examples of improvement on the ground. The situation is bad everywhere. 

Counterinsurgency in practice is different than how it was sold in Washington. The only place that counterinsurgency has been tried is in Marjah and the result has not been good, despite some early favorable press reports. There is no similar operation planned in the future. The upcoming offensive in Kandahar will not be counterinsurgency, because there is no way to clear a city of nearly one million people. Furthermore, military operations in Marjah and Kandahar are unlikely to alter the course or outcome of the war.

The coalition could soon be overstretched with heavy fighting in the North and the ongoing Taliban surge in the East.  The goal of “Afghanization” is unrealistic at this stage. The Afghan army will not be ready to take over the lead in fighting anytime soon and Afghanistan’s unpopular government and weak institutions make transferring responsibility to the government impossible for the foreseeable future.

With these grim realities, the coalition faces the risk of an endless engagement—with an unsustainable cost and intolerable loss of life—that cannot be won militarily. The perception in Afghanistan is that the Taliban will be successful and the coalition will eventually withdraw. And without an ability to change the balance of power, the United States will need to negotiate an exit.

Will the upcoming offensive in Kandahar help militarily or politically?

Without a credible and reliable local partner in Kandahar, there is virtually no chance for success. Ahmad Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s half brother, is the dominant leader in Kandahar and despite efforts by the United States to have him removed, he will continue to be the local strongman. Under Ahmad Wali Karzai’s control, opportunities to reform the local government will be blocked.

Due to low levels of trust in local officials and high levels of corruption in the local judiciary, people in Kandahar routinely seek Taliban judges to settle their disagreements. The total corruption of the local government has enabled the Taliban to set up a shadow government.

Also, thousands of coalition troops will not make major gains in a city of almost one million inhabitants. Small tactical successes are within reach, and undoubtedly will be highlighted in U.S. media, but this will not shift support to the Afghan government. Coalition forces are not welcome in Pashtun areas and the heavy fighting will undoubtedly increase tensions and casualties on all sides, further eroding the coalition’s political capital.

Should the United States negotiate with the Taliban? If so, who else should be involved?

The situation on the ground is at a dead end and the only solution at this stage is to talk with the Taliban. The coalition’s best hope is to negotiate a broad agreement with the Taliban leadership that forms a national unity government and guarantees that al-Qaeda and other radical groups do not return to Afghanistan. While talking to the Taliban does not ensure success, a power-sharing agreement is the best opportunity for a positive outcome.

For negotiations, interested parties need to determine what needs to be discussed and who should be involved. There are two key points that will need to be agreed to. On one side, the Taliban will want the total withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan. On the other side, the United States and other outside powers will require a guarantee against the return of al-Qaeda and guarantee that radical groups will not be allowed space to operate from the country. The key to both sides is building a broad-based government that will allow a withdrawal of coalition troops and guarantee that al-Qaeda will not return.

The essential actors to include from the beginning in negotiations are the Karzai government, the Taliban, the United States as a representative for the broader coalition, and Pakistan. The selection of these participants will help determine the success of the talks.

The U.S. administration is saying that it is not America’s job to negotiate with the Taliban and that it’s a local Afghan process. But Karzai is not a reliable enough partner. He’s too weak and cannot make a commitment on key points, including the withdrawal of Western troops and security guarantees relating to al-Qaeda. There is obviously a legitimate concern about Afghanistan in the long term and it should not be left to Karzai and the Taliban alone to decide the country’s fate—the coalition should negotiate directly with the Taliban.

Some will complain about Pakistan’s involvement in talks, but there is no choice but to go through Islamabad. Pakistan must be included as the intermediary to the Taliban even at the expense of India’s involvement. Pakistan is the only country in the region that is a potential spoiler in the process. India also has interests in Afghanistan and the Karzai government doesn’t want India to be excluded from Afghanistan. But direct Indian involvement in negotiations will not work with Pakistan. Thus, the United States will need to simultaneously address Pakistan’s demands and also defend India’s interests in Afghanistan, notably its concerns that radical groups based in Afghanistan could threaten India in the future.

What is the best U.S. exit strategy at this stage?

U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is at an impasse—tactical successes will not defeat the Taliban while Pakistan offers sanctuary, nor can security be “Afghanized” by a government that lacks legitimacy and is irreparably unpopular. Because a military solution is infeasible, negotiating with the Taliban is the only option left. A negotiated agreement can pave the way for a unity government and hopefully stabilize the country.

While a political solution is the only exit strategy, the problem will be the domestic political environment in the United States. President Obama is in a difficult situation as there remains strong support for U.S. involvement and many people think the war can still be won. Given these circumstances, direct talks with the Taliban are impossible until after the midterm elections in November—President Obama would pay a high price for negotiations. The United States, however, should use the major policy review in December to rethink its strategy, declare a ceasefire, and begin talking with the Taliban.