Karzai's Criticism Strains Relationship With U.S.

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Guest

Jackie Northam, foreign affairs correspondent, NPR

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai said there should be fewer U.S. troops in his country, and demanded an end to nighttime raids by special forces. U.S. Commander Gen. David Petraeus reportedly warned Karzai that his comments could undermine the counterinsurgency.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai ignited another dispute with the Obama administration over the weekend. This time he told the Washington Post the U.S. should reduce military operations and end nighttime raids by U.S. Special Forces. The public argument comes as the Obama administration says U.S. troops are making significant inroads against the Taliban and as it laid out a timetable to end the combat operations in that country.

NPR foreign correspondent Jackie Northam recently returned from Afghanistan and joins us for an update here in Studio 3A. Hi, Jackie. Welcome home.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And when you were last with us in May, President Karzai was in Washington. And both he and President Obama were also smiles over the difficulties that theyd had in the past. Obviously, things have gone back to normal - worse.

NORTHAM: Right, indeed. Yeah, this relationship between the U.S., and particularly between the Obama administration and President Karzai, has been very much up and down. And it's getting rockier as it goes along. When I was just came back from there - when I was there, the big issue was private security firms. And President Karzai was pushing. He had laid down a law that they must go by December. And it expended a lot of political capital, a lot of time for the Western nations that were there to try to sort this out. And in the end, he blinked.

But, you know, now we're looking at, as you just mentioned, these nighttime raids. His call that they have to stop and, you know, reducing the number of military - U.S. military operations there. So I think what we're going to see, as time goes on, is more of this, Karzai picking an issue and digging his heels in.

CONAN: Did - the other one was his offer to the Taliban to initiate peace talks and U.S. - General Petraeus ordering that U.S. forces provide logistical support and guarantees to any Taliban members who wanted to come and participate in those conversations.

NORTHAM: Sure. And actually, it's one of those things. President Karzai, you know, went on television and said that he had already had these secret talks with the Taliban. Immediately afterwards, I spoke with his press spokesman, and he said, well, let me clarify. In fact, it's talks about talks. He said nobody has sat down at the negotiating table.

And as you know, Neal, there is a whole gamut of Taliban, you know, from the farmer that picks up a gun for five bucks a day, you know, to the ideologically driven men down in Kandahar perhaps, or the leadership in Pakistan. And those are the ones that they say really have to sign off on the talks, the leadership.

And the senior leadership was very, very clear that is not about to happen. And if it did, it would not be with the Karzai government, which it considers illegitimate. And in fact, it would have to be with the U.S.

CONAN: And one of the arguments that General Petraeus has been making is that even if they were ready to talk, it was too soon. That they had not been defeated, that his plan is to continue these kinds of nighttime raids, which he argues have been very effective, the operations around Kandahar for another six to nine months. And at that point, there should have been enough military progress that perhaps the Taliban would say, okay, let's talk.

NORTHAM: Right. You know, in another words, you give the U.S. more leverage and to soften up the Taliban. And as you say, the, you know, the U.S. is saying that these nighttime raids have been very effective. They've picked up at least three times the number of raids that they were doing in the past. And that, yes, hopefully thatll bring the Taliban to the table. Taliban still insists it wont but they are getting indications that the Taliban is feeling pressure right now. And whether it's from these raids, from these military operations, they don't know. But they want to keep up that pressure so it can allow some sort of political solution.

CONAN: And the - whatever the source of the pressure, the United States wants to keep it up. But is there sufficient pressure, so long as there are safe havens in Pakistan, where the Taliban can refit and keep its leadership?

NORTHAM: Right. No matter what happens in Afghanistan, you have to incorporate the Pakistan question. And that part has not been sorted out. The Pakistani government, the Pakistan military intelligence services all appear to still be hedging their bets and staying with the Taliban in one shape or another. So that part has not been worked out. Youre seeing an increase in the number of drones against Taliban or al-Qaida in Pakistan. But you're right, that is the key to this whole strategy.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR foreign correspondent Jackie Northam, recently back from a visit to Kabul. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And does it feel different in Kabul this time around?

NORTHAM: Yes, sure. I mean, it changes. I go there quite regularly and it changes every time that you go there. I think one of the things this time that sort of stuck with me is that you got the sense that everyone was positioning themselves, you know, with this, quote, unquote, "transition" that is coming up in July 2011. Now, combat troops, they're saying, out by 2014.

You know, normally when I go there, no matter who you talk with, Pakistan comes into the conversation, what Pakistan - is doing, how it's all Pakistan's fault, frankly. And now what you're hearing increasingly is Iran is coming into the conversation as well, whether it's interference from Tehran or whether it's how President Karzai is dealing with Iran, and that type of thing with the leadership in Iran as well. So that's pretty curious to see how that is.

But I got to tell you, every time you go back as well, there's just more and more progress in that city, and all the various other cities as well. Certainly, there's more cars, the traffic is astonishing, but more computers, more - everything has become more Westernized, more Western music, people are wearing Western clothes. It's just - the city, the country, for the most part, is progressing. It's moving along.

CONAN: You read the dispatches from the battlefields and you say, this is going to be extremely difficult, the Taliban seems to be so well positioned, the government is corrupt and inefficient, yet you report - and you see them in terms of the evidence of movies like "Afghan Star" and things like that.

NORTHAM: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: The culture in Afghanistan, at least in Kabul and the big cities, has changed.

NORTHAM: It certainly has. And that's one of the things that, you know, I really talked to a lot of people about this time, is whether the Taliban could come back in a big way to Afghanistan. And they say, a lot of people, you know, and talking to, like, 20-year-olds, 30, 40, analysts, major thinkers, that type of thing - and it's probably no, because this country has advanced so much more than when the - you know, when the Taliban first came in back in the '90s, there was nothing there. There was no running water. Even in the capital city there was no electricity. There was nothing. Now, there is.

CONAN: After the Russian invasion and then civil war which followed and the war of Iraq.

NORTHAM: Absolutely. And the country had gone through decades of war and it was devastated. There was nothing. Now there is. Now there is something that people have. They've all got cell phones. Again, they've got access to computers, to the open world, everything else like that. And people I spoke with said, no, we're not willing to give that up very easily, which in turn means, could the Taliban come back as it once was? And I think it would be a much greater struggle than the first time around.

CONAN: Yet, do Afghans with whom you speak when you visit, do they have greater confidence in the - that the war is going to end in any kind of positive result?

NORTHAM: No. No. And in fact, that was the other thing that was really striking this time because we're doing a series looking at this sort of stuff. And it -the pessimism is, you know, is almost palpable honestly because people thought there was a moment in time when the U.S. came in, they threw up the Taliban, life was starting to look good. That was when they actually had a belief. This is what people say, a lot of people say. Now they don't see any end to this war.

You know, the U.S. and the Western allies, they might think, gosh, this is a restart, this is the new strategy, this is going to work this time, or at least they're hoping it. Afghans don't see it that way. It's just a continuation. It's just more the same, really, for them.

CONAN: Yet at the same time, there was the surge in the number of forces, the extra 30,000 troops which are out in Kandahar for the most part, in the eastern and southern part of the country. There was also supposed to be, along with that, parallel to it, a civilian surge, with greater numbers of programs to build schools and bridges and all kinds of reconstruction in the country that would lead Afghans to say, there is a future. Things are getting better.

NORTHAM: Right. That's the hearts and mind kind of thing. If you show development, if you show that there is progress and that type of thing. That part takes a little bit longer to get up to speed. Certainly, there are thousands of civilians coming in. And in fact, the embassy in Kabul is trying to cope with it. Last year, they had 320 people there. By the end of this year, youre looking at 1,200 people. And so they're building this embassy as fast as they can.

They've got all different agencies coming in from all over America, trying to get in on the ground and start working. This stuff takes longer. A military operation, you can see results pretty darn fast. The other - the civilian effort will take time, but they are moving in in vast numbers.

CONAN: And as you look ahead towards this, are we gonna know a lot more come this spring, do you think?

NORTHAM: Come this spring, yes, I think we will. Well, first of all, you know, the military - the U.S. military is saying that it's making advances, it's making progress militarily, particularly down in the south. And that, I think one term they used was routing the Taliban or (unintelligible). You know, all they have to do is take off their black turban and hide their weapons under the bed and they're gone, for all intents and purposes. The thing is, is it sustainable?

And we've seen this in other parts of the country where the U.S. has claimed great success, great advancement, and lo and behold they come back. I'm thinking of Marjah down in the south. That was a classic example of that. So if they are seeing some success now, some progress now, militarily, we have to wait until spring when the new fighting season starts again. For the most part, the Taliban have gone back for the winter season.

CONAN: Is the United States going to be able to sustain military pressure in those very difficult areas of the country in the winter?

NORTHAM. Yes, they will. That's one thing that the U.S. really does have. You know, they can certainly sustain that over the winter. They've got all the resources that they need. They got the troops that they need now, and they certainly have the support of Washington that they need.

CONAN: Jackie Northam, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it. Jackie Northam, NPR foreign affairs correspondent, just back from a visit to Afghanistan.

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