America’s Afghanistan War: The Poor Relationship between The US and Karzai

Sharifullah Dorani

sharifullah.durrani@cesran.orgSouth Asia and the Middle Eastern Editor at CESRAN International.

America’s goals in Afghanistan did not succeed as ordinary Americans, Europeans and Afghans would have wanted them to do. Although numerous achievements have been made over the past two decades, many of them are under threat or have already been lost. The goals would have secured a relatively peaceful, progressed, stable, thriving and secure Afghanistan if succeeded. In my soon-to-be-published novel set in Afghanistan, a well-informed character put forward several reasons or factors for America’s inabilities to achieve its goals in Afghanistan:

‘Pakistan kept poisonous snakes in its backyard and used them to bite us and our international allies; Saddam Hussein’s ghost haunted America’s abilities in Afghanistan; America aimed at defeating terrorism in Afghanistan and the world, but refused to commit enough ground troops – instead relied on warlords and strongmen; NATO allies brought with them hay and straw to build Afghanistan, not bricks and mortars; in pursuit of a democratic Afghanistan we perhaps sidestepped our own traditional values; [many] Afghan politicians fell in love with the dollar and flushed their country’s national security interests down the toilet; and, our Afghanistan’s inborn complexities have been turned into major sources of conflict’ (Dorani, 2022: 392).

Several factors caused the poor relationship, including Karzai’s disagreement with US Afghan policy. It is essential to mention that the disagreement had started during the first years of the George W Bush Administration’s second term but became more public during the Barack Obama Administration.While I study those factors in great detail in my book America in Afghanistan and my novel (which I am yet to decide on a title), I will focus on them individually in short essays that will be submitted to Political Reflection Magazine and The Rest for publication. This essay concentrates on one of the reasons why pervasive corruption in the Afghan government was not adequately addressed, and thus, to borrow the above character’s words, Afghan politicians were allowed to flush ‘their country’s national security interests down the toilet’. It was partly due to the poor relationship between the US and Hamid Karzai, who was President of Afghanistan from December 2001 to September 2014. Again, I have covered ‘the poor relationship’ in much greater detail in Chapter 9 of America in Afghanistan.

For the former Afghan President, the roots of the problems did not lie in Afghanistan’s villages, but over the borders in Pakistan, which had ‘the ideological, financial, motivational, political and military centres of terrorism that enabled the infiltration of insurgents into Afghanistan’ (Dorani, 2019a: 151). He wanted the US to stop fighting in Afghanistan where innocent Afghans were killed and instead find a strategy to deal with Pakistan’s double game and the sanctuaries. Since consecutive US strategies/administrations did not address the sanctuaries (as the way they should have been), Karzai was convinced that the US would fail in its Afghanistan War (Dorani, 2019a: 151; Karzai, November 2011; Karzai, 2012; Karzai, May 2013; Karzai, May 2014; Chandrasekaran, 2012: 165; Gates, 2014: 496).

Like most Afghans, Karzai did not seem to ascertain what America’s main goal in Afghanistan was. Americans told Afghans that the Taliban was no longer their enemy and Al Qaeda was not present in Afghanistan. If the Taliban was not an enemy, and if Al Qaeda did not have a footprint in Afghanistan, why were American forces in Afghanistan, and who were they fighting? For Karzai, the Afghanistan War was not an insurgency but a war on terrorism. If the former, then it was an Afghan issue and the US should not be in the country to support one brother against another (Dorani, 2019a: 152; Karzai, January 2013; Karzai, October 2013; BBC and RTA, 2014).

Karzai continuously pleaded with the US to stop their collateral damage, night raids, American prisons, and other human rights abuses. These highly sensitive issues to Karzai (and Afghans), most importantly, collateral damage, became a significant source of friction between the Afghan President and the Obama Administration. The Americans consistently told Karzai and the media how sorry they were, that wars had collateral damage, that they worked hard to minimise it. However, ‘sorry’ was hardly good enough for the Afghans. Karzai felt that the Afghans wanted answers from him as an elected leader. But the Americans seemed to have been not doing enough, or, as Karzai claimed, not even listening to Karzai. Karzai believed that these human rights abuses would strengthen the Taliban and weaken the Afghan government. Witnessing the Taliban’s swift takeover of Kabul in August 2021, Karzai was hardly wrong (Dorani, 2019a: 152–5; Karzai, March 2013; Karzai, May 2014; Karzai, July 2014; Cowper-Coles, 2011; Gates, 2014: 201–2, 470).

US Commander in Afghanistan from June 2009 to June 2010, General Stanley McChrystal, said in 2013 that US and coalition forces fought a war almost by themselves, hardly involving (or listening) the Afghan government in making  not just in Afghanistan but also in Washington or other European capitals – and implementing any US/coalition Afghan strategy. As a result, the Afghan President was sidelined and did not have a meaningful role (Dorani, 2019a: 152; Dorani, 2019b; McChrystal, 2013).

Karzai wanted the relationship to be between two sovereign states, and Afghanistan’s interests should be clearly recognised. He wanted the US not only to mention and honour US sacrifices, but also to show appreciation for the sacrifices the Afghans, especially their security forces, had made. However, Karzai believed that the US was not mindful of Afghan interests (Dorani, 2019a: 153; Karzai, November 2011; Karzai, March 2013; Karzai, July 2014).

The presence of warlords likewise bolstered the number of Taliban fighters, and Karzai blamed the US for nurturing the warlordism strategy. To sustain his government, Karzai in the early years of US intervention wanted to use the threat of US forces to have warlords removed, but the Bush Administration, particularly Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, disagreed, telling Karzai to use political appointments and spoils instead of the threat of US troops. Throughout its administration, Bush and his advisors employed the warlordism strategy, and consequently, by 2010, the Afghan government mainly was made up of warlords and tribal leaders. It was, therefore, too late for the Obama and Donald Trump Administrations to abandon the warlordism strategy. 

As a result, both the US and the Afghan government could not protect ordinary Afghans from warlords/strongmen and achieve other goals they had set out in the beginning. Working with warlords/strongmen disappointed the Afghans, who believed that America did not want peace and security in Afghanistan. The warlordism strategy played a crucial part in strengthening conspiracy theories in Afghanistan and the region (Dorani, 2022: 277; Dorani, 2019a: 152–4; Karzai, May 2013; Neumann, Hadley and Podesta, 2012; Gates, 2014: 358; Arreguín-Toft, 2011). For example, when I was researching for my book (and novel), I consistently heard a familiar point of view from ordinary Afghans. Now the viewpoint is voiced by a character in my soon-to-be-published novel as she says:

‘If America decides, Afghanistan would be peaceful in one day…America has other ulterior motives. So it has given power to the warlords. It’s called divide and rule’ (Dorani, 2022: 277).

Karzai equally disagreed with America that the solution to curbing corruption lay with himself. Karzai believed that the lack of oversight on large contracts offered by the West, Western intelligence agencies’ distribution of money to warlords and strongmen, and money given out by non-governmental organisations and provincial reconstruction teams were the leading cause of corruption. Karzai, however, admitted the presence of petty or bureaucratic corruption in the Afghan government, but he could not take a ‘revolutionary’ stance against corrupt ministers or governors since the Afghan government did not have a strong foundation and could easily become unstable by warlords and strongmen. Karzai already struggled to keep a political balance; he could not afford to make more enemies.

According to Karzai’s sympathisers, instead of understanding Afghanistan and its situation, instead of admitting that corruption was partly the result of certain US/NATO strategies, the US/the West publicly blamed – and humiliated – Karzai for corruption and lack of effective governance, demanding a change to good governance that was unrealistic to the situation in Afghanistan (or any of the neighbouring countries). America’s assumption that pressuring Karzai would change his behaviour backfired since Karzai became resentful of the US and the West’s continued criticism, and instead blamed the US for everything that had gone wrong in Afghanistan, including corruption. Karzai knew that toughening his stance would make him even more popular with the Afghans. Karzai, who, unlike former President Ashraf Ghani, did not flee Kabul after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, continues to criticise/blame the US for the difficulties the Taliban-led Afghanistan faces, and his reasons are similar to the ones explained above (Dorani, 2022: 277, 301; Dorani, 2019a: 154–60; Dorani, 2019b; Crawford, 2021; Karzai, May 2013; Karzai, May 2014; Neumann, Hadley and Podesta, 2012; Gates, 2014: 202, 337; Woodward, 2010: 37, 71–2; Crocker, 2010).

The poor relationship between the US and Karzai, or the lack of trust between ‘the two allies’, was a tragedy for ordinary Afghans. A better relationship and a better understanding of what each could (or could not) do for another might have led to the formation of a relatively effective Afghan government; a government that would have been popular among ordinary Afghans and the international community. Such a government could have become a strong party to the Doha peace talks and conducted meaningful negotiations that might have led to a political agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.


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