6 years, 11 months ago
As I have discussed before, in 2004 in Najaf, the U.S. Marines had Moqtada al Sadr surrounded. The British leadership in Iraq, who felt that we simply had to learn to work with the fabric of Iraqi society, worked feverishly with Ali al-Sistani (the senior Shi’ite cleric in Iraq) to convince the U.S. political and military leadership to release Sadr. This Charlie Rose interview with John Burns is instructive for its clarity regarding the event (see approximately 17:20 into the interview).
As later disclosed to me, Sadr wasn’t just surrounded. The 3/2 Marines had Sadr in their custody. They had arrested him and had held him for three days prior to being ordered to release him. Today, six years later, a resurgent Sadr after having received religious training in Iran is doing Iran’s bidding for them. A Shi’ite coalition is attempting to retain control over the government in the wake of the recent elections and not only exclude Allawi from power, but give ultimate authority over final political decisions to religious cleric Sistani.
A recent conversation I had with Omar Fadhil of ITM (perhaps in a preface to his latest post) might bring slightly more optimism than I bring to the table, where he sees the Maliki-Hakim-Sadr alliance as still very shaky. Nonetheless, there are many U.S. deaths in Baghdad and Najaf that can be directly attributed to Sadr. We are hearing from the ghosts of Najaf six years later, haunting voices, telling us that Sadr should not have been released. They are unmistakable and relentless. This was a bad and irreversible decision.
Such an important decision is in preparations for the Afghanistan campaign. We are attempting to befriend and work with (even change?) Ahmed Wali Karzai, PM Hamid Karzai’s criminal brother in Kandahar. To be sure, Wali Karzai doesn’t command an army of fighters the size of Sadr, or even an army at all. But the similarities exist. Leaving Sadr unmolested was an error of gargantuan proportions, and working with Wali Karzai may be judged in hindsight to be the single fateful decision that lost the battle for Kandahar. Karzai’s political and financial fortunes rides on the backs of criminal organizations and drug money, and his friend are bought and paid for. This is being described as a gamble.
Nato has taken one of the biggest gambles of its mission in Afghanistan by reluctantly deciding to collaborate with Ahmad Wali Karzai, the notorious power-broker of Kandahar — despite allegations that the half-brother of the President is involved in the drugs trade.
The decision comes as Nato planners continue preparations for their next big push against the Taleban in Kandahar and as the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, prepares to depart for Washington, where he is expected to meet President Obama next week.
Senior coalition officers would prefer to see the back of Wali Karzai but they have come to the conclusion that their only option is to work with him. They are trying, in the words of one officer, to “remodel” a man accused of running a private fiefdom in the south.
On Saturday Wali Karzai held a meeting with the US Central Command commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus; the latest in a series of contacts designed to rehabilitate and influence the activities of the chairman of Kandahar’s provincial council.
“The plan is to incorporate him, to shape him. Unless you eliminate him, you have to [do this],” said a senior coalition official involved in planning what is viewed as this summer’s make-or-break military operation in Kandahar. “You can’t ignore him,” he added. “He’s the proverbial 800lb gorilla and he’s in the middle of a lot of rooms. He’s the mafia don, the family fixer, the troubleshooter.”
Joshua Foust is even clearer: “ISAF faces a number of political challenges as well. A majority of Afghan watchers point to Ahmed Wali Karzai as one of the biggest barriers to smooth operations in the city—he demands a cut of most commerce that takes place in the area, and the DEA alleges he has ties to the illegal narcotics industry. However, because he is the President’s brother, there is no chance of removing him from power. Similarly, Kandahar is, in effect, run by a group of families organized into mafia-style crime rings. They skim profits off almost all reconstruction projects in the city, and have developed a lucrative trade ripping off ISAF initiatives. They sometimes violently clash with each other.”
My own counsel just prior to this report was directly contrary to the plan.
In order to win Kandahar, we must not run from fights; we must destroy the drug rings (not the local farmers), and especially destroy the crime families, including killing the heads of the crime families; we must make it so uncomfortable for people to give them cuts of their money that they fear us more than they fear Karzai’s criminal brother; we must make it so dangerous to be associated with crime rings, criminal organizations, and insurgents that no one wants even to be remotely associated with them; and we must marginalize Karzai’s brother …
Anyone associated with drug rings, criminal activity or the insurgency must be a target, from the highest to the lowest levels of the organization, and this without mercy. Completely without mercy. There should be no knee-jerk reversion to prisons, because the corrupt judicial system in Afghanistan will only release the worst actors to perpetrate the worst on their opponents. This robust force projection must be conducted by not only the SOF, but so-called general purpose forces (GPF). The population needs to see the very same people conducting patrols and talking with locals that they see killing criminals and insurgents. This is imperative.
Two very different approaches, needless to say. It remains to be seen who is right in this affair. There seems to be confusion or at least rapidly changing opinion within the ISAF. Not two weeks prior to this report about co-opting Karzai, it was reported that we had elected to do just the opposite. ISAF has concluded that nothing else can be done, and I have concluded that something else must be done in order to justify the loss of American life.
There is little doubt that U.S. and other NATO forces can win a military victory in Kandahar. But do they have a political strategy to match their military might? I am dubious. At the very least a lot more groundwork needs to be laid in the realm of strategic communications to convince the world that the coalition can win a meaningful victory in Kandahar without removing AWK from power.
And this demur was posed assuming that we were merely attempting to sideline Wali Karzai. Now we want to work with him and mold him. But “can a leopard change its spots?” In the future the ghosts of Kandahar, including U.S. servicemen, will call out and answer our question, even haunting the dreams of those who controlled their fates.