How John Kerry got the Afghan leader to see sense.

Military analysis.
Oct. 21 2009 6:45 PM

Karzai Salesman

How John Kerry got the Afghan leader to see sense.

Richard Holbrooke. Click image to expand.
Richard Holbrooke 

Sen. John Kerry's successful mission to Kabul —in which he convinced Afghan President Hamid Karzai to hold a second-round runoff to August's fraud-soaked election—suggests that the Obama administration is putting the squeeze on Karzai to clean up his act as a precondition to getting more U.S. troops to help fight his war.

The squeeze was subtler—or, at least quieter—than the yelling sessions that AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke and Vice President Joe Biden—both famously voluble characters—have held with Karzai in recent months.

Yet a chronology of Kerry's "shuttle diplomacy" pieced together by ABC News shows the Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee meeting with Karzai six times, some sessions for hours at a stretch, during a five-day trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan Oct. 16-20—each visit at the behest of, and in consultation with, Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

They and President Barack Obama clearly understand that without either a runoff election or some power-sharing arrangement with the runner-up, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan is all but doomed.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wrote in his famously leaked memo to Obama, a counterinsurgency campaign must "provide for the needs of the population by, with, and through the Afghan government" (his italics). This can't be done if the Afghan government is widely seen by its own people as illegitimate—which Karzai's regime certainly would be were he simply to declare himself re-elected and stay in power.

An international commission, backed by all of Afghanistan's Western allies, has ruled that nearly one out of every three ballots cast in the Aug. 20 presidential election was fraudulent. With those ballots removed from the count, it turns out that Karzai won just less than 50 percent of the vote—a situation that, under the Afghan Constitution, requires a second-round runoff.

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Karzai initially rejected the commission's findings. Over the course of his first five meetings with Kerry, he switched back and forth between accepting and deriding the verdict—until, finally, after the sixth meeting on Tuesday, he finally acceded to the pressure and agreed to a runoff on Nov. 7.

Of course, this might not be the end of the story. Karzai could waver once again. Many wonder whether a safe, honest election can be organized so quickly, given the Taliban's continued warnings that they will kill anyone who votes (especially in the southern part of the country) and the continued presence of corrupt election officials (though Karzai has reportedly fired some of them).

These uncertainties have led some to prefer a power-sharing agreement between Karzai and Abdullah. Abdullah has said he might go along with such a scheme. This might ease the way to legitimate rule—or it might alienate Karzai's backers, especially in the southern Pashtun districts where the Taliban have made the heaviest inroads. (It is further doubtful that any Afghan leader can keep power without Pashtun support. Abdullah is half-Tajik; should he win a runoff, it's possible that his government would be seen as even less legitimate, at least in Pashtun circles, than Karzai's is now.)

The ideal solution, from the U.S. point of view, would be for Karzai to win an honest, well-attended runoff election.

But no official can say this publicly, especially after the hissy fits thrown, however justifiably, by Holbrooke and Biden in their earlier meetings with Karzai. Holbrooke's yelling session took place in August, when he accused Karzai of tilting the election results. Since then, Holbrooke has kept a low profile on Afghanistan.

Ditto for Biden, whose moment of pique came early last year, when he was still a senator, on a trip to Kabul with a few Capitol Hill colleagues. Over dinner, Karzai repeatedly denied charges of corruption inside his government—until, finally, Biden threw down his napkin, shouted, "This dinner is over," and walked out.

Under the circumstances, neither Holbrooke nor Biden would be the best agent to carry a firm message for Karzai from Obama to get with the program.

Enter Kerry, who can be viewed as a somewhat independent player—close to, but not formally a part of, the Obama administration—whose style is the farthest thing from brash.

Politically, Karzai cannot afford to look as though he's buckling to foreign pressure. If he goes along with a runoff election, he has to make it seem that the decision was his alone. Pressure from an outside power can work only if it's applied with discretion and respect. Kerry, who was on a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan anyway, was the right man for the mission.

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