The Real Reasons Karzai Wants U.S. Troops Out

Night raids, power struggles and the other reasons why Americans are still deeply unpopular in Afghanistan.

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A U.S. soldier stops for a rest during a patrol in the village of Qol-e-Boton, in mountains of Wardak Province on July 17, 2009. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

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.

Karzai sees U.S.-supported fighters -- who have little to no connection to the Afghan central government -- as a potential threat to his own power.

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.

Presented by

Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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