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ISAF increase security in response to Karzai speech

March 15, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary:  President Karzai, once again makes an unhelpfully undiplomatic contribution

karzaiSome “quick and dirty” thoughts in response to the news report that ISAF commander, General Dunford, has authorised a higher alert status for his forces due to fears that Karzai’s recent political outbursts (including claims that ISAF and the Taliban were cooperating) might cause some form of backlash against ISAF.

New York Times, 13 March 2013: The American commander in Afghanistan quietly told his forces to intensify security measures on Wednesday, issuing a strongly worded warning that a string of anti-American statements by President Hamid Karzai had put Western troops at greater risk of attack both from rogue Afghan security forces and from militants.

Analysis and Outlook

Gen Dunford’s actions seem unusual – it seems to be a very public “secret” escalation of the threat assessment.  Of course we have been used to Karzai’s outbursts (even before Eikenberry’s lament “He’s on his meds, he’s off his meds…) but I can’t recall a US response quite as strong as this.  However, looking at it in the round, and the sort of attacks and threats these days (ie insider attacks), I couldn’t actually say that Dunford has over-reacted.  I could certainly envisage Taliban efforts to exploit this or solo efforts by a lone, angry and confused ANSF member.

The last thing anybody needs now is an action from Karzai that will be irreversible (an aggressive speech, taking control of Bagram, banning airstrikes or SF activities…).  My sense is that Obama is very much “we’re done here”, but both sides still need each other for the long haul (13,000 troops, or whatever, will still require much goodwill and cooperation from both sides, post-2014).  A precipitate and acrimonious pull-out would be a disaster for everyone, not least the people of Afghanistan.  Its not as if there isn’t enough uncertainty and risk as it is.  I expect a lot of diplomats to be earning their salary over the next few days to ensure that this issue is put away as soon and as  calmly as possible.  Dunford’s response is as much pointed diplomatic response as it is prudent military precaution – Karzai probably didn’t have to be named, references to the “current political climate” or similar might have sufficed as justification for raising the security threshold.  I don’t have sense as to whether this would have been coordinated with the White House (but I guess so?).

But, even though I don’t believe Karzai will be President after 2014, I think there is a strong element of Karzai asserting his control and Afghanistan’s sovereignty at present.  With the US on the way out (or mostly), from his perspective there might be some easy political points to be scored.

Unfortunately, Karzai’s mood swings and timings are rarely a good combination – and he is probably understandably slightly vexed about the Wardak Special Forces incident, where US-trained Afghan forces allegedly committed human rights abuses in February.  His frustration about not being to run his own country has surfaced several times before.

So, although the timing was poor, the wording extremely ill-advised and ill-thought through, I still have a little bit of sympathy for Mr Karzai.  From his perspective he has been pushed and pulled by the US far too many times.  He still does not feel respected nor that his legitimate concerns (sovereignty, control over prisoners, air strikes, civilian casualties, talking to the Taliban, foreign military operations across Afghanistan) are heard or respected.

Sometimes he feels the need to rattle the cage a bit louder for effect – maybe it’s the most effective way he knows to get heard…

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