It is fair to ask what the blazes Secretary of State John F. Kerry is doing in Afghanistan trying to get President Hamid Karzai and other Afghans to let American troops stay there after 2014.
The American people and their leaders -- at least those who are not profiting from defense contracts, the bulge in the military budget or campaign contributions from defense contractors -- are fed up with the Afghanistan War after what will have been 13 years. America has spent an estimated $700 billion and lost 2,287 lives in Afghanistan.
The situation on the ground -- even though the Taliban continue to flourish in the country -- is a little more sympathetic to American goals and objectives than it was in 2001. Al-Qaida operatives remain and, miraculously in some ways, one of Mr. Karzai's bargaining levers is a U.S. insistence that it continue to be allowed to hunt al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Mr. Karzai wants the United States to provide intelligence about al-Qaida members to Afghan security forces, who -- in principle -- would use it to apprehend them. (The Libyans used to say, "When a camel lays eggs.")
Yet, there was Mr. Kerry flying to Afghanistan over the weekend to try to get Mr. Karzai to agree that U.S. forces can stay in Afghanistan past the deadline for withdrawal at the end of 2014. The Afghan leader apparently advanced several preposterous conditions. One was that the United States guarantee Afghanistan's future security as it would a NATO ally. Apart from the absurdity of the United States granting a country like Afghanistan the same defense relationship as Britain, what Mr. Karzai apparently really wanted was U.S. support of incursions his forces might make into neighboring Pakistan.
Pakistan, by the way, has a population of 180 million, possesses nuclear arms, has borders with China, India and Iran, and is many times more important to the United States than Afghanistan ever has been -- with the possible exception of when it hosted al-Qaida as al-Qaida planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks in 2001. One of the continuing party tricks of Afghans under Mr. Karzai's ostensible rule is to launch attacks on American forces seeking to train the Afghan army -- attacks which continue to claim American lives.
Another quest of Mr. Karzai in bargaining with Mr. Kerry is whether the American or Afghan government will have jurisdiction over U.S. troops accused of commiting crimes in Afghanistan. That particular sticking point was what finally caused the United States to withdraw all of its forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, drawing that long, expensive war to an end after eight years. My own view is that even if Mr. Karzai does capitulate on that point, the United States should still withdraw all of its forces from Afghanistan on schedule.
An unfortunate bit of history that may lie behind what is going on between the U.S. and Afghan governments is the precedent of America leaving behind in countries where it has fought wars thousands of troops, apparently forever. There are still some 50,000 in Germany, more than 50,000 in Japan and 28,500 in South Korea.
This is an expensive habit and unnecessary in 2013, when troops can be moved from one place to another quickly and easily in the event of emergency developments. Too many people and companies are making too much money from the continuing U.S. effort in Afghanistan. It isn't as if the U.S. government doesn't need to save money at this point. That, in part, is what the current nonsense in Washington is about.
There also is the unfortunate fact that a very corrupt Afghan government depends on foreign aid for about 80 percent of its expenditures, with the United States the largest donor.
The situation of Mr. Karzai himself is a glaring example of the problems both of Afghanistan and of any outside party seeking to help Afghanistan. As of now, presidential elections in which Mr. Karzai cannot be a candidate, according to the Afghan constitution, are scheduled for April. He has promised not to jimmy the system to stay in power, although he is already expressing his preference for a successor. It is interesting that Mr. Karzai's strong, publicly proclaimed nationalistic position on the subject of American troops remaining past 2014 has the sound of a presidential candidate.
The other aspect of Mr. Karzai as he deals, first, with his own political situation, and, second, with negotiations with Mr. Kerry, is the preeminent question of what happens to him after he leaves office, if he does. It is generally agreed that his remaining in office and even his own personal security depend on the continued presence of American troops.
Mr. Karzai says he will submit the proposed agreement on whether U.S. troops stay past 2014 to a big public gathering, what the Afghans call a "loya jurga." In principle, the conference will vote on the Kerry-Karzai proposals. Afghans will be told privately they are voting on whether 80 percent of the budget will keep coming from the United States. They might just vote "yes" to keep the money rolling in. Or they might guess that they can vote "no" and ask for more, which they might well get.
Either way, guess who loses? The American taxpayer.
The United States needs this war to be over after 13 years and thousands of deaths. America doesn't need an eternal presence in Afghanistan. We can watch it by overhead surveillance and, if things get out of line there, take appropriate action. What Mr. Kerry is negotiating for on behalf of President Barack Obama is an expensive, extended presence that America does not need.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1976). First Published October 15, 2013 8:00 PM