The tension between the United States and Afghanistan has reached a boiling point.
More details are emerging about Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 unarmed Afghans this past week, and there is still anger over the accidental burning of copies of the Quran by soldiers on a military base.
When he met with relatives of the victims Friday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai prayed for God to "rescue us from these two demons," a reference to the Taliban and what many believe is the U.S.
As the rift widens between the U.S. and Afghanistan, the Obama administration might be forced to rethink its strategy in Afghanistan and its plans for withdrawal.
The U.S. And Karzai
President Karzai said this week that he believes the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship is at the "end of the rope." There is no doubt he does not see eye to eye with President Obama on Afghan policy and that their relationship is beginning to fray.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, says American officials haven't always given Karzai the credit he is due. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that the U.S. should listen to Karzai when he gives a diagnosis of the country.
"In recent times the relationship is such that it has not always been functional for both sides," Khalilzad says.
The erosion of that relationship has roots in Afghanistan's most recent presidential election, Khalilzad says, when the Obama administration was perceived by many to be in support of Karzai's opponents. He says that did a lot of damage to the trust between the two presidents.
"Never point a gun to the king's head, because if he survives he's not going to forget that," Khalilzad says. "That's what we have at one level with President Karzai at the present time."
An Afghan by birth, Khalilzad has seen his country invaded, occupied and go through different phases of socialism, communism and even monarchy. But he says he is "cautiously optimistic" about Afghanistan's future — if there is a strategic partnership agreement and a residual U.S. presence.
"On the other hand, if the U.S. withdraws or abandons Afghanistan," he says, "there is a risk of return to the 1990s ... when a terrible civil war broke, which brought the Taliban and al-Qaida to Afghanistan."
The Military Solution
The U.S. is supposed to withdraw most of its combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, but Karzai said he wants that to happen sooner. The cornerstone of the withdrawal plan is to train more than 200,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army.
Journalist Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter, is wary of that plan. She tells Raz that the last thing Afghanistan needs is more armed men.
"No Afghan army has ever defended its country against foreign forces or protected its government," she says. "In fact, as often as not, the army has played a part in overthrowing the government."
Trying to instill a notion of loyalty to a cause — especially a losing one — in the Afghan people is dangerous, Jones says.
"[Afghans] think it's really stupid to keep loyal to a cause that is losing. It's a recipe for civil war. It's a recipe for disaster," she says.
Jones says the U.S. never should have gone there militarily in the first place. "Once you get caught in militarism," she says, "then you keep thinking that way."
Though military leaders have been saying for years that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, Jones says the U.S. can't seem to think politically, diplomatically or in terms of the humanitarian needs of the Afghans.
"We've gotten into this bind now where the only thing we can think of is more and more armed men," she says.
The one ray of hope, Jones says, is that the Afghan people might just straighten things out themselves simply because they are tired of war.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
More details are emerging today about Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the soldier accused of killing 16 unarmed Afghan civilians this past week. Meanwhile, tension between Washington and Kabul is growing. Our cover story today: Afghanistan and the road ahead. We'll hear from America's former top diplomat there, Zalmay Khalilzad, in a moment.
But first to our correspondent in Seattle, Martin Kaste, who has more details on the man allegedly behind those attacks on Afghan villagers.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Bales served three tours in Iraq. On his second tour in 2006 and 2007, his platoon leader was Lieutenant Chris Alexander, today a captain. Reached by cell phone, Alexander describes Bales as an awesome soldier.
CAPTAIN CHRIS ALEXANDER: He always got, you know, the job done. I mean, it's the (unintelligible). He's just a really solid guy. You give this guy a task and it could be (unintelligible), it could be dangerous, you know, either way, but you'd never had to worry about whether he was going to get it done and get it done well. I mean...
KASTE: After the battle of Najaf, Bales' commanding officer recommended him for a Medal of Valor, though he didn't get one. Alexander says he and other former members of that company found out on Monday that Bales had been linked to the massacre, and they kept it quiet until the name was finally leaked yesterday. He says everyone who knows Bales from that time is mystified, and he guesses this might be a case of posttraumatic stress disorder.
ALEXANDER: I would be surprised a little if we have been told everything. I mean, there's just a lot about the story that just didn't make sense.
KASTE: Later, on his third tour in Iraq, Bales was injured twice, including a brain injury, though the severity is not known. More recently, his family back home may have been undergoing financial strains. Just days before the shootings, his wife asked a realtor to put their Washington state house on the market - priced at a loss. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
RAZ: This past week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was asked about the U.S.-Afghan relationship.
PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: It is, by all means, the end of the rope here.
RAZ: It has reached the end of the rope, he said. It's no secret Karzai doesn't see eye to eye with President Obama over Afghan policy. And according to Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, American officials haven't always given Karzai the credit he's due.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I think he's done some big things with the United States and Afghanistan, risky things. We, at times, have not listened to him when he has given diagnosis. But in recent times, the relationship has been such that it has not always been functional for both sides.
RAZ: His behavior, at times, has been erratic. One day he's calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, the next day he's pulling back. How do you explain that?
KHALILZAD: Of course, he's got a very difficult job that has very many challenges. But at the same time, there had been this trust deficit between the United States administration and the president personally. And I believe that when he thinks about the country's national interest, he definitely - as he told me many times - believes that a strategic relationship with the United States is in Afghanistan's interest, that Afghanistan needs the United States. But on the other hand, sometimes the experiences of the last election affects them to judge the United States in harsh and negative terms.
RAZ: It sounds like you are critical of the Obama administration's approach.
KHALILZAD: I am not entirely critical. I think the Obama administration has done some good things in dealing with Afghanistan. But I believe that even some in the administration would agree that dealing with President Karzai during the last election in which almost casually the idea of supporting those who were working against President Karzai in the election, semi-openly, I think did a lot of damage to the relationship of trust that existed. And never point a gun to the king's head, because if he survives, he's not going to forget that. And that's what we have at one level with President Karzai at the present time.
RAZ: You are an Afghan by birth, of course.
KHALILZAD: I am.
RAZ: You have seen your country invaded and occupied and go through different phases - socialism and extremism and communism and so on, monarchy. Are you optimistic about what could happen there in the next 10 years?
KHALILZAD: It depends. One, it depends whether there is a strategic partnership agreement and there is a residual U.S. presence and agreement. I think I am cautiously optimistic that in that scenario while pursuing a negotiated settlement. But on the other hand, if the U.S. withdraws or abandons Afghanistan that there is a risk of return to the 1990s when Afghanistan, after a great success, which was a joint success of the United States and the Afghans, to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
The Afghans didn't take advantage of that opportunity and a terrible civil war broke, which brought the Taliban and al-Qaida to Afghanistan, and that it also a possibility. And I think it's in the interest of the United States and in the interest of the Afghans that we have the former outcome rather than the latter.
RAZ: That's Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Iraq and Afghanistan under President George W. Bush. He's now at Gryphon Partners in Washington, D.C. We spoke to him at his office. Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you so much.
KHALILZAD: Well, thank you very much.
RAZ: The U.S. is supposed to withdraw most of its combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014. This past week, Hamid Karzai said he wants that to happen sooner. The cornerstone of the withdrawal plan is to train more than 200,000 Afghan soldiers. But journalist Ann Jones, author of "Kabul in Winter," who has spent time with the Afghan army, is wary of that plan.
ANN JONES: The last thing you want in Afghanistan is more armed men. And no Afghan army has ever defended its country against foreign forces or protected its government. In fact, as often as not, the army has played a part in overthrowing the government. But our concept of being loyal as our soldiers are loyal to the cause they went to fight for is not a concept that Afghans subscribe to. They think it's really stupid to keep loyal to a cause that is losing. It's a recipe for civil war. It's a recipe for disaster.
RAZ: Well, what's the alternative, Ann? I mean, if the United States wants to get out of Afghanistan, wouldn't it be irresponsible to just pull out without creating some kind of apparatus in place that could, in theory, protect the countrymen? What else can you do?
JONES: We never should have gone into Afghanistan militarily in the first place. It wasn't a military problem, it never has been. But once you get caught in militarism, then you keep thinking that way, even though military people themselves have been saying for years now that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, we cannot think politically. We do not think in terms of diplomacy. We do not think in terms of the humanitarian needs of the people.
So we've gotten into this bind now where the only thing we can think of is more and more armed men. I don't have an alternative to that. But the one ray of hope is that Afghans are not stupid by any means. And they may very well straighten it out for themselves because they are so tired of war.
RAZ: Let me ask you about something that Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said. He said that President Karzai has, in fact, exhibited erratic behavior at times but that the U.S. does not listen to him. Would you agree with that?
JONES: I would absolutely agree with that, but I would go further. The Obama administration came in determined to take a harder line with Karzai. And so they really humiliated him. Bush had humiliated him too. But Obama team has done a better job of humiliating him.
But it's true that from very, very early on, Karzai was warning that to build the Afghan government and the society, the foreign aid had to come through the Afghan government. And we started, from the very beginning, sending our money around the government and have never supported the government directly in a substantial way.
And Karzai was absolutely right about that, as many in the international community recognized. But we are the outliers in all of this. We have never listened to him, and then we say he's crazy when he gets mad.
RAZ: Just from the perspective of a taxpayer, though, let me just play devil's advocate here. Given the record of Afghan bureaucrats and government officials, I mean, how could you hold them accountable? I mean, if you were to just send the money to the Afghan government and it went down a rabbit hole and who knows where it was going and how it was being used, don't you think the American public would demand accountability?
JONES: Most American foreign aid never gets to Afghans, it goes into the pockets of the American contractors. And they parcel it out to some sub, sub, sub, subcontractor that they hire from Pakistan or India to do a little work. But it's the Americans who take the money home. And the Afghans learned how to do that from us.
So because we did it wrong in the first place, we dug the hole deeper and deeper and deeper. And now, again, you're right, Americans would say: You can't give money to that corrupt Afghan government, they're going to disappear with it. And that is, in fact, what's happening right now. Apparently, millions of dollars are going out from Kabul Airport every day these days.
RAZ: That's Ann Jones. She's author of "Kabul in Winter" and "War Is Not Over When It's Over," speaking to us from Oslo. Ann Jones, thank you so much.
JONES: Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: And you can find more of our coverage on Afghanistan at our website, npr.org. Stay with us. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.