Is Hamid Karzai a reliable partner in Afghanistan?

Military analysis.
April 5 2010 7:28 PM

Has Karzai Gone Crazy?

What matters is whether he's a reliable partner.

Hamid Karzai. Click image to expand.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai

What is to be done about Hamid Karzai? The short answer is: not much.

These past few years, since the revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, the U.S. military has learned much about "asymmetrical conflicts," in which an ostensibly powerful nation (e.g., the United States) finds itself outmaneuvered by considerably weaker adversaries (e.g., al-Qaida, the Taliban) who have figured out how to tap our vulnerabilities.

It seems that the president of Afghanistan has been learning his own lessons about how to play this game.

Karzai's regime—its sovereignty, budget, army, police, even his personal security—depends entirely on the United States, NATO, and a handful of other foreign allies.

The Western powers have committed so much to the war because they see it as important to their security. Precisely because they have—and keep saying that they have—so much stake in Afghanistan, Karzai understands that he has much more leverage than the simple math might suggest.

It's like the old joke: If you owe the bank $1 million, the bank owns you; if you owe the bank $1 billion, you own the bank. We're the bank, and Karzai's the one in unfathomably deep debt, but he's calculating that we won't foreclose precisely because of this relationship (a politico-military equivalent of "too big to fail"), and he's probably right.

This may explain Karzai's latest string of eruptions. On April 1, he accused the West of trying to rig last fall's Afghan presidential elections (which, in fact, he had so blatantly rigged himself) and criticized the Western military coalition (which is all that's separating him from a rope and a lamp post) as invaders who are legitimizing the Taliban as a movement of "national resistance."

When it was clear that the objects of his attack were not amused, Karzai phoned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to apologize for any misunderstandings that his remarks might have caused. Then, over the weekend, he escalated the rhetoric. At a meeting with Afghan parliamentarians who had rejected a decree that would give Karzai the power to appoint all members of the currently independent Electoral Complaints Commission (and thus total power over elections, making him potentially president-for-life), he said, "If you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban."

He also assured a group of tribal elders in Kandahar that he would cancel NATO's military operations in the province—which have been (very carefully) planned for the summer and which form the foundation for President Barack Obama's new strategy—if they didn't want it to go ahead.

Some U.S. officials, who have grown accustomed to Karzai's tantrums over the years, say these latest outbursts are beyond the pale and raise troubling questions about the whole military mission.

The point of our counterinsurgency campaign is not so much to destroy the enemy but, rather, to protect the Afghan people—to provide them with security so that the Afghan government can deliver basic services and thus earn the people's trust and allegiance, luring them away from the Taliban and other insurgents.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, put it in a memo last year, the war's focus must be on "the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population, by, with, and through the Afghan government." (Italics added.)

When McChrystal wrote that memo, the big concern was that the Karzai regime's pervasive corruption might undermine his legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people. If so, even the most brilliantly executed military campaign would fail to accomplish its political objectives, because it would be impossible to provide services "by, with, and through" a distrusted Afghan government.

However, Karzai's latest remarks raise a more alarming question still: Is it possible for Western governments to work by, with, and through an Afghan president who denounces them at every turn, even to the point of characterizing them as imperialist invaders, thus affirming the main talking point of the Taliban and al-Qaida?

The issue here is not Karzai's peevishness or ingratitude. The issue is whether, under the circumstances, a counterinsurgency campaign can work—whether we're wasting lives and money.

One key question, which U.S. officials are exploring, is whether this rupture with Karzai can be mended. Some officials cite a chronology of events that suggests we may have (unwittingly) sent him off the deep end and that, therefore, we might be able to calm him back down.

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.

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