Karzai Washes his Hands

Last Friday, the IHT carried a piece by an intelligence analyst named Lara Dadkah, complaining about US General Stanley McChrystal’s new directive on the use of air power in Afghanistan. He required that it be used only under “very limited and prescribed conditions”; Dadkah worried that the pendulum had swung too far in favour of avoiding civilian deaths. She called it a “well-intentioned directive” that is based on an immoral lie – “that war can be fair or humane.”

If anything, the last week has shown that the pendulum probably hasn’t yet swung far enough.For the second time since the start of the military push into Marja in Helmand province (dubbed “Operation Moshtarak”) General McChrystal has apologized to Afghan president Hamid Karzai for the allies having caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The first was when a rocket strike killed 12 civilians in a house in Marja; this time, it is after an airstrike on a convoy of minibuses in Uruzgan killed at least 27 non-combatants.

McChrystal is said to be “apoplectic” after this latest round of civilian casualties, and for good reason. The push into Marja is intended as a showpiece operation for his new counterinsurgency strategy of clearing out the insurgents, holding the population centres, and installing stable and effective governance. The deaths in Uruzgan, while not part of the operations in Helmand, have nevertheless caused serious political problems for both ISAF and for Karzai himself.

Counterinsurgency operations is an essentially political act. It’s designed to force the population to declare an allegiance, to make a choice as to who they’ll support. And the only way they’re going to support the coalition (and, by extension, the Afghan national government) is if they have faith that they can be protected. Civilian deaths undermine that faith.

When I was in Afghanistan last week, I attended a briefing on Operation Moshtarak conducted by Canadian Brigadier-General Eric Tremblay, who is McChrystal’s spokesperson. (McChrystal himself was supposed to give the briefing, but he was already busy dealing with the fallout from the first round of civilian casualties). During the briefing,Tremblay went out of his way to impress upon us that Karzai himself had taken personal, political ownership of the mission.

Yet according to a NATO official in Kandahar, it was only with great reluctance that Karzai signed off on the Helmand mission, and once the first civilian deaths occurred,  he was quick to wash his hands of it. It is now being portrayed as an ISAF mission, with all the political heat resting with McChrystal. This is bad for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it’s going to make it that much harder to get political sign-off on the much more serious COIN operation to come in Kandahar this summer.

But more important, Karzai’s refusal to step up and take ownership the mission means that he won’t be able to take much credit for it either. Tremblay told us that the key to success was that the fight against the insurgents be Afghan-led, and Afghan-owned. Two weeks into Operation Moshtarak – which means “together” in Dari – the coalition seems to be going it alone.

The rules of engagement for coalition forces in Helmand are already extremely tight. They’re likely to get tighter still.

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