Upon reading the early reports of Afghan President Karzai's recent speech criticizing foreign interference, and thus indirectly including U.S. interference, it would be natural to feel resentment given the material and human sacrifice the U.S. has made over the past +8 years in attempting to both destroy terrorist networks in Afghanistan and reestablish the national and economic foundation of the country. However, I believe the U.S. shouldn't be surprised at this speech for two key reasons:
- The leaders of Central Asian countries have resorted to such speeches frequently since the collapse of Soviet hegemony in the region in 1991. It is typical of being an extremely weak state amongst a number of other volatile and weak states, a situation which has been leveraged over the years by multiple foreign powers to project power in Central Asia and, particularly, to gain advantage or control over Afghanistan's affairs.
- The U.S., and its Western allies, lack a larger, encompassing strategy for the Central Asia region. If there existed a larger, guiding strategy for Central Asia, there would be multiple, inter-related pieces and activities in play in parallel with our efforts within Afghanistan to bolster the foundational state of its security, economy and political structure. The lack of this increasingly ensures that success of our efforts within Afghanistan are too closely hinged to the actions, including mistakes, of our own political, diplomatic and military leadership.
Although the U.S. remains the world's primary superpower, the recent trip by President Obama to Afghanistan showed an eagerness to appear tough with President Karzai in relation to his crackdown on government corruption. But, in my opinion, we have no reason to appear tough with President Karzai if we are confident in our ability to project influence with his administration behind-the-scenes. Thus, I believe public pronouncements by the Obama Administration in regards to criticisms of Karzai's lack of progress in tackling corruption is more for U.S. political theater than for the benefit of Afghanistan and by extension the Central Asia region.
I am by no means attempting to diminish the importance of rooting out and eliminating corruption in the Afghan government, but we must remember that this will be an ongoing process that can be improved over time and, given the horrid and decrepit state from which the country is being reborn, we must keep things in perspective. Our pressure on this front must occur at the national level in Afghanistan, but even more so at the local level where the political constitution of Afghani society is still most critical to address due to the country's disintegration in the early 1990s.
As long as we continue to lean towards a "policy-by-country" approach to the Central Asia region, Afghanistan will be in danger of falling back from the sometimes small and sometimes dramatic improvements it has made since 2001. This is because, during moments of political, economic and security distress, Afghanistan currently only has the U.S. to fall back on rather than a regional movement with momentum towards peaceful economic and diplomatic connectedness. It is this type of regional movement with which a grand strategy for Central Asia should be centered on and only part of which includes our current military, economic and diplomatic initiatives in Afghanistan.
For a sampling of mainstream commentary on Karzai's speech, please see below:
Washington Post: Publicly criticizing the Afghan president hurts the U.S., by Michael O'Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan
Reuters Afghan Journal: Why Karzai decided to attack the West
MSNBC: Karzai's speech befuddles Afghan officials, by John Yang