In swiftly replacing McChrystal with the well-regarded David Petraeus, President Obama emphasized that he was changing the general, not the policy. This is unfortunate because the policy is precisely what needs to change.
While President Obama describes his Afghan counterpart as the democratically elected leader of a reliable ally, saying it doesn’t make it so. President Hamid Karzai heads a government ranked the second-most corrupt in the world, where power rests with thousands of warlords, power brokers, and militiamen.
While some may hold elected or appointed positions, this is incidental to their exercise of power, which depends on the number of armed men at their disposal or because of the wealth they have been able to accumulate. Karzai holds his office not as the choice of the Afghan people but as the result of a massively fraudulent election, as he himself now concedes.
Where local power brokers are in league with the Taliban, it is fatal to cooperate with the government. In too many instances, the nominal government authorities are powerless, corrupt, working with both sides in the conflict, or all of the above. Karzai’s national government cannot remedy any of this. It is corrupt, ineffective, and widely seen as illegitimate. Some senior government officials, including President Karzai, through his half-brother in Kandahar, have their own links to the Taliban.
At General Petraeus’ confirmation hearing, senators should bear down on two questions: Can the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy work without a credible Afghan partner? And is Karzai’s government a credible partner?
The honest answer to both questions is no.
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