The tensions started to escalate on March 10, a few weeks before his April Fools' Day outburst, when Karzai warmly welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Kabul—an event seen in Washington as a deep affront. Yet this didn't come out of the blue. As the New York Times' Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler reported later, Karzai invited our No. 1 enemy for a state visit—then sat by calmly as Ahmadinejad delivered a fiercely anti-American speech in the presidential palace—"to spite" Obama for withdrawing an invitation for Karzai to visit the White House. This withdrawal came in response to Karzai's decree to take over the independent election commission—which is to say that relations have been at best up and down for a while.
Obama made his surprise visit to Kabul on March 28, in part to raise concerns with Karzai in person, in part to assure him of the United States' continued support. Officials say the meeting seemed to go well.
Then, on March 31, the Washington Post published a front-page story that quoted a "senior U.S. military official" threatening to put Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's brother, on a list of most-wanted insurgents so that he can then be arrested or killed.
President Karzai assiduously reads the American press and is extremely sensitive to longstanding accusations that his brother, the head of Kandahar's provincial council, is a drug lord (a charge they both deny). Two U.S. officials I spoke with think that the Post article might have spurred him to make his wild-eyed remarks over the next three days.
It may be time for Obama to send Sen. John Kerry back to Kabul for another half-dozen meetings with Karzai, over 300 more cups of tea, as he did last October, when he persuaded the Afghan president to hold a second round of elections after the first round was proved to be so rigged.
Maybe Kerry can pamper Karzai with recitations of reassurances. If not, there's trouble ahead. Obama could threaten to pull out of Afghanistan if Karzai doesn't straighten up, but Karzai would surely see this as a bluff and might call it. Then what? If Obama really sees his commitment as vital to U.S. interests (and he wouldn't have ordered the escalation if he didn't), then he's not likely to take the gamble.
Another option is to go around Karzai's authority and deal more with Afghanistan's provincial governors and tribal elders. This has been part of Obama's plan all along. Last November, shortly before announcing his new strategy, Obama said in an ABC-TV interview that he and his advisers were focusing on "not just a national government in Kabul but provincial government actors that have legitimacy in the right now."
Gerard Russell, a former U.N. official in Kabul (who is now at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy), said in a phone interview Monday that the Western coalition is pursuing this approach to some extent. The ongoing military operation in Helmand province has elevated the power of some independent Afghans there, at the expense of Karzai's people.
However, Russell added, there are risks to going around Karzai as the centerpiece of a strategy. "Karzai is very good at this sort of thing," Russell said. "He could undermine these regional governors if they get too powerful."
Russell thinks there was an opportunity last year, before the elections, to get rid of Karzai. Others disagree. They say that Karzai's agility has always been underrated and that, even if it hasn't, an alternative candidate might have been worse. There is also the matter of the "Diem complex." The CIA's assassination of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem during the Kennedy administration, did nothing to improve political prospects and only sucked the United States more deeply into the quagmire.
In any event, Russell agrees that, at this point, the West is faced with just two options on what to do about Karzai: either withdraw support for him—or back him all the way. Ambivalent support or persistent bickering is a recipe for disaster and defeat.
Which is why someone probably needs to start sipping those 300 cups of tea.
When Obama announced his new strategy late last year, he said that the troops he was sending to Afghanistan would begin to come out in July 2011. In elaborating on this policy, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained to Congress that it would be clear by the end of 2010 whether the strategy was succeeding, and decisions about how many troops to withdraw would be made on that basis.
It is now clearer than ever that the strategy's success or failure is, in large measure, up to Karzai. If he hasn't proved to be a reliable partner by then, it's time for us to back someone else—or leave.