Afghan President Hamid Karzai told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that his countrymen "welcome" President Obama's announcement Wednesday night that the U.S. is pulling 33,000 troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next summer. Karzai said it's "a sign that Afghanistan is taking over its own security and trying to defend its territory by its own means. so we are happy about the announcement. As for the number of troops, we have no opinion on that." But off camera, is Karzai really happy? A senior Karzai aide told The Daily Beast's Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, "The withdrawal announcement will badly hit the morale of Afghans and the Afghan government and re-energize the morale of the insurgency."
Public and private differ on how ready Karzai's government is to handle a smaller American presence. Karzai told Zakaria that Afghans were ready to take control, and that "If you fail in fulfilling our most important responsibility with regard to our country and our people, then somebody else should take over." But earlier this week, Les Gelb argued that "Karzai knows far better than Washington that his government cannot survive the departure of U.S. and NATO forces, whether that goodbye takes another five or 10 years." Indeed, at congressional hearings today, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said if the U.S. were to keep the number of troops at the current level, "we would have made it easier for the Karzai administration to increase their dependence on us."
Zakaria argues that it's "a serious mistake on the part of the U.S. administration to leak" damaging information about Karzai's government, because the "alternative to Karzai is just another corrupt incompetent leader." But, Afghan opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah--who was Karzai's foreign minister from 2001 to 2006--obviously disagrees. Abdullah told CNN, "I am worried about the Afghan government's ability to deliver and shoulder its responsibilities. ... I consider Karzai's leadership--the fact that he doesn't have a vision for the country and the fact that he mixes friends and enemies--to be the main challenge for Afghanistan." Abdullah said that Karzai had been "distancing" his government from allies, and that "The Taliban is taking advantage of this."
Meanwhile, Yousafzai and Moreau report that the Taliban is "cheering" Obama's troop drawdown. A senior member of the Taliban's military council told them, "This clearly is a defeat for the U.S. in Afghanistan, and the start of the return of the Taliban, [its supreme leader] Mullah Omar, and an Islamic sharia state. ... We can't believe that in the short time of ten years the Taliban are forcing the superpower of the century to pull out its troops."
The New York Times' Alissa J. Rubin and Taimoor Shah report that in the southern part of the country, the Taliban is already winning allies. "Hajji Kala Khan, a tribal elder from Maiwand, said local people had begun to help the Taliban again by re-establishing Taliban courts to resolve problems rather than turning to the government." Khan explained, "The Taliban are saying to the elders not to support Americans or you will be killed, and now they say, 'The Americans are leaving and your lives will not be spared.'"