Afghan President Hamid Karzai's surprise statement this week kicking U.S. Special Operations forces out of Wardak Province, a strategic region close to Kabul, was a rare burst of headline news from a largely forgotten war. The elite U.S. troops, Karzai said, had been "harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people."
Karzai has issued similar demands before, only to quietly back down later. American forces have promised to investigate the situation in Wardak, and it's possible -- and even probable -- that this Karzai edict will last no longer than his previous ones. Karzai, for instance, has repeatedly ordered the U.S. to stop using night raids and airstrikes in civilian areas, but NATO continued to do both.
Still, the contretemps highlights a pair of rarely-discussed dynamics that could shape the American endgame in Afghanistan: Karzai's lingering anger over the role played by elite U.S. forces in the past and his clear desire to sharply limit what they can do in the future.
It's far from a simple political dispute. The Obama administration says it will withdraw the overwhelming majority of U.S. forces from the country by the end of next year. Most of the remaining troops will help train the Afghan Army and National Police.
That's not all the U.S. will be doing, though, which is why this week's blowup may prove to be significant. The White House has made clear that sizable numbers of Special Operations forces will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. The elite troops will have two main missions: mounting targeted raids against suspected terrorists and training local militias to fight the Taliban in remote areas. The problem is that Karzai doesn't want the U.S. to be doing either, and this week's edict could be a harbinger of a long, bitter fight to come. Karzai believes the raids cause significant cvilian casualties and worries the militias could take part in a future Afghan civil war.
Here at home, bearded commandos from units like the Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force are celebrated in best-selling books like "American Sniper" and the popular, if controversial, movie "Zero Dark Thirty." Video games featuring the elite troops have collectively grossed billions of dollars. Americans love heroes, and the men (they are always men) who swoop into fortified compounds at night to kill or capture wanted terrorists seem to fit the bill perfectly.
That is not, to put it very mildly, how those troops are seen in Afghanistan, where the commandos are routinely accused of killing or arresting the wrong targets and calling in air strikes which result in significant numbers of civilian deaths.
The night raids the elite units use to catch wanted Afghans while they're asleep are particularly hated. Afghans complain that it's a grave cultural insult for male troops to search women or enter a home uninvited. A night raid earlier this month which killed a pregnant woman has made the missions even more unpopular.
Karzai has been railing against the night raids for years and periodically demanding that the U.S. and its allies forego them entirely. In November 2011, for instance, he said "all night raids and searches of Afghan homes should stop immediately." American commanders ignored him. Night raids, a U.S. spokesman said at the time, were "an essential part of our operations." Indeed, senior American commanders say the raids get their men nearly every time while rarely requiring the troops to fire a single shot.
Wardak is a strategically important province which borders Kabul and is a key route for militants trying to reach the Afghan capital. Karzai said the new edict was prompted by widespread public anger in Wardak over reports that nine local residents disappeared after being taken into custody by "armed individuals named as U.S. special forces" and that the body of a student detained by the Americans was found later with his throat cut and signs he had been tortured. Karzai's allegations are under NATO investigation.
The Obama administration has made some concessions since then - having more Afghans participate in planning some raids and taking Afghan commandos on many missions -- but the U.S. continues to mount hundreds of night raids per year, often unilaterally. When Washington and Kabul signed a highly-touted agreement last spring which seemed to suggest that future raids would require warrants from Afghan courts, the two governments glossed over the fact that the U.S. retained the ability to mount raids and get warrants after the fact, if at all.
The militias the U.S. is working to set up throughout Afghanistan are equally unpopular with Karzai and many ordinary Afghans, who complain that the fighters have so little American oversight that they are free to routinely rob, rape, and sometimes kill civilians. Karzai and many other Afghans note that militias played a bloody role in the country's last civil war and could do so again if renewed strife breaks out when the U.S. leaves. More prosaically, Karzai sees the fighters - who have little to no connection to the Afghan central government - as a potential threat to his own power.
This week's fight will probably blow over, but Karzai is playing with fire. The war is increasingly unpopular among both Democrats and Republicans, and a Karzai overstep could lead the administration to simply pull the plug and withdraw all American forces by the end of 2014. Either way, the U.S. is heading towards the exit. The biggest question going forward is whether Karzai will hold open the door.