The White House's new Afghanistan plan: Be nice to Hamid Karzai.
Hamid Karzai is in Washington for a four-day love fest designed to show the world that, despite the occasional quarrel, the state of the Afghan-American partnership is sound. But not quite beneath the surface, discordant noises are all too evident.
Take the May 10 White House press conference, featuring the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal; and the U.S. ambassador, retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry.
Eikenberry, you may recall, caused a stir last November, toward the end of the interagency review of a new U.S. strategy on the war, when he sent a classified (but quickly leaked) memo to President Barack Obama, urging him not to send more troops to Afghanistan until President Karzai cleaned up his regime's corruption. Short of this comprehensive reform, Eikenberry said, Karzai was "not an adequate strategic partner" for a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign.
Obama decided to send 30,000 more troops anyway, thus siding with Gen. McChrystal and other advisers. Still, tensions remained, the corruption continued. When U.S. officials pressed Karzai for action, Karzai tightened up. At one point last month, he launched into an anti-American tirade and even threatened to join the Taliban if Washington didn't let up.
Since then, Obama has ordered his national security team to lay off, and to rally around, Karzai, at least in public. But Eikenberry seems to have a hard time swallowing. Here's the telling exchange from Monday's press conference:
Q: Are the concerns that you've talked about in the past, about whether President Karzai is an adequate strategic partner—have those been allayed? Do you no longer have those concerns?
AMB. EIKENBERRY: President Karzai is—he's the elected president of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a close friend and ally, and of course I highly respect President Karzai in that capacity.
This response may win an all-time contest for lamest expression of support for a distrusted ally. (The reporter followed up, asking, "So your concerns have not been allayed?" At this point Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, probably sensing disaster, jumped in: "I think he answered it." On to the next question.)
Two points are worth making beyond the obvious one. First, it's hard to see how Eikenberry's diplomatic career can survive this eruption of candor, especially after the order from on high. But, second, the probably-soon-to-be ex-ambassador was only saying what many, perhaps most, of those officials are thinking—that Karzai's a loose cannon who may lose the war, no matter how well our strategists plan and our armed forces fight.
When Obama meets with Karzai on Wednesday, he has a fine line to walk. On the one hand, he does have to shore up Karzai's confidence. It wasn't just Eikenberry's leaked memo that sent the Afghan president into a tizzy. Vice President Joe Biden had once walked out on a dinner with him (for good reason); U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke had yelled at him (ditto); finally, just before (perhaps prompting) Karzai's flip-out, the Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. official threatening to kill or capture his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, for drug dealing.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo of Hamid Karzai by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.