Larry Wilkerson: Afghan President Hamid Karzai is justified in his refusal to accept the terms of the bilateral security agreement, which would keep ten bases under US control and grant troops immunity
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Tensions between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. are at a high. Karzai is refusing to sign the bilateral security agreement, which proposes to keep 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014. Karzai went even further recently, saying he, quote, “saw no good” in the American presence in Afghanistan.
Let’s take a listen to what he had to say.
HAMID KARZAI, AFGHAN PRESIDENT: Afghanistan is a sovereign country. If the Afghan judicial authorities decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the U.S. and should be of no concern to the U.S.
DESVARIEUX: Here to discuss this diplomatic tension is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary.
Thanks for joining us, Larry.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So, Larry, there’s been little to no communication between Obama and Karzai since June, actually. And the current bilateral security agreement outlines that the U.S. will maintain ten U.S. bases, immunity for all U.S. forces, and an unquestioned continuation of night raids into Afghan villages.
Given these stipulations, from a U.S. policy perspective, why is Karzai refusing to agree to these terms?
WILKERSON: Jessica, from a U.S. policy perspective, I’m not sure I can answer that question without laughing. From an Afghan policy perspective, from Karzai’s perspective, political and what I would call realpolitik in particular, he has every reason to object. Just the last issue that you discussed, special operating forces running slipshod, rampant through Afghanistan, doing whatever they want to do at all hours of the night, killing civilians, killing al-Qaeda, killing Taliban or alleged Taliban, whatever, that is enough in and of itself, were I Karzai, to object strenuously to this BSA.
The other provisions, almost a loss of sovereignty in terms of prosecuting any crime or any activity by a U.S. service member that might be against Afghan law, and just the fact that you need the territory for ten bases, sort of impugns that same sovereignty.
So I know he’s doing it for political purposes, and other purposes don’t relate to our policy, but he’s got good ground to stand on in terms of the agreement.
DESVARIEUX: So if we’re at a standstill here, you have President Karzai and the U.S. Let’s say they’re not able to reach an agreement. Will that mean that that make all these years of fighting really meaningless if it means that the Obama administration will actually pull out all American troops? How do you feel about that?
WILKERSON: I would ask the question, what in the course of events in Afghanistan over the past ten-plus years, other than the initial elimination, if you will, of the al-Qaeda cells that were operating there, has been worth the blood spilt or the treasury expended? I think Afghanistan right now stands as as grievous a policy failure, a decision-making failure, if you will, as, for example, my own experience, Vietnam proved. It’s not as much treasure, it’s not as many lives (thank God), but the strategic objectives achieved, other than that objective I mentioned earlier, ridding al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and so forth, getting them out of Afghanistan, it’s hard for me to find any other achievements.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. And I’m glad that you talked about the bloodshed, because civilian casualties in Afghanistan have increased 14 percent in 2013 compared to the year before, and that’s according to a UN report.
But, Larry, I want to get your take on this. Is there any legitimacy to Karzai’s point that the U.S. is fueling violence in Afghanistan rather than alleviating tension?
WILKERSON: Of course there is, just by our presence there. We have become, as many a soldier and marine has told me, we have become the central point against which almost every element, be it Tajik or Pashtun or Taliban on the one hand, or al-Qaeda or whatever, or just a farmer in the field wants to vent his rage against, and from time to time does depending on the group that he’s in. So we are the long pole in the tent, as we used to say in the military, in terms of inciting violence in Afghanistan.
Now, let me hasten to add that there’s no reason why when we leave, that some degree of that violence, perhaps a lot of it, won’t continue, because that’s just Afghanistan and the situation that India and Pakistan and others around it sort of make happen. But the U.S. presence right now is as much an ingredient of the dying and the bleeding in Afghanistan as anything else, probably more so.
And let me just add, there’s another thing Karzai has said that resonates with me–and resonates profoundly–and that is that all the billions of dollars we’ve given to Afghanistan, they haven’t necessarily gone to Afghanistan for the betterment of its economy, its financial structure, its educational system, and so forth, agriculture. What they’ve gone for is to fill the pockets of U.S. and other private contractors. And I don’t know what the percentage is, but I know how grossly this occurred in Iraq from about 2004 until our pullout there. And so I know Karzai is probably right. Whether he’s saying this for political reasons or not is irrelevant. He’s right. We have spent billions of dollars on our own contractors in Afghanistan, and precious few of those dollars have actually made it through to helping the Afghan people.
DESVARIEUX: Alright, Larry. I want to pivot and talk about the future of Afghanistan, ’cause we know that Afghanistan will actually hold its presidential election in April. Karzai, he says he’s not–.
WILKERSON: We hope.
WILKERSON: We hope.
DESVARIEUX: We hope. Karzai says he’s not running, though. What do you see actually transpiring? What groups are emerging? Who will take power? Give us a sense of the risk here. Is it potential civil war?
WILKERSON: I like to think not. I have a particular Afghan friend in Kabul with whom I email, and that’s his fear. He thinks it’s just going to be back to the past again. And certainly there are many signs, reasons to support that point of view.
But I think what I see is a war weariness amongst the groups in Afghanistan. I see Pakistan and India willing at least to revisit their former fomenting, if you will, tension and actual conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan to give it strategic depth against India, and India to prevent Pakistan from gaining that strategic depth.
I just see a set of circumstances that if Iran and Turkey and the other surrounding powers were brought in on what we might call a positive deal, and Iran (I have to emphasize Iran there) needs to be in this equation.
I could see how after the U.S. pulls out and there’s no longer that U.S. long pole in the tent for everyone to be angry at and to coalesce around, I could see Afghanistan making some progress. Some of that progress would be undoubtedly due to some of the things the Americans have done, we have done since we’ve been there, but most of it would be due to the Afghans themselves picking up the pieces and moving on with their lives.
DESVARIEUX: So, Larry, let’s talk about the role of the Taliban, ’cause you have a spokesperson for Karzai actually saying that they’ve been in negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. What do you foresee their role being?
WILKERSON: Well, everybody’s been in negotiations with the Taliban. That’s an amorphous term. As I said, there is an extreme there. On the one extreme, you’ve got a farmer who’s angry that we stepped on his opium crop, poppy crop, and so forth. He’s a Taliban. He’s fighting. He shoots at U.S. soldiers. On the other extreme, you’ve got the people like Mullah Omar and so forth who are dedicated Taliban. In between lies a wide range of people. They are going to have to be a part of any political solution in Afghanistan. So all these negotiations, whether it’s the Pakistanis, whether it’s the Afghans themselves or ISAF or NATO or the United States, all looking at the Taliban, they’re going to have to incorporate a body of that group that we call Taliban into whatever political solution occurs. And I don’t see that as being that–difficult, but not being impossible.
One of my interlocutors in Afghanistan has told me that there’s no way the Afghan people are going to allow the Taliban version that we associate with the word Taliban. That is to say, the people who brought about the kind of coercion and oppression on Afghanistan during their reign, though they might have eliminated drugs to a certain extent and so forth, they’re not coming back. Those people are not coming back and going to control Afghanistan. I think he’s probably right about that.
But there are a lot of people, as I suggested, in that title, Taliban. And since there are a lot of people, some of them are going ta have to be incorporated somehow in the political solution.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Larry Wilkerson, thank you so much for joining us.
WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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