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.
On the other hand, Obama has to continue pushing President Karzai to clean up his act, even threatening him with consequences if he doesn't. If Obama doesn't succeed on both tracks, his war strategy is doomed.
The goal of a counterinsurgency campaign, after all, is not so much to defeat the enemy—in this case, the Taliban and other insurgents—but rather to secure the local population so that the government can provide local services and thus gain the people's loyalty.
As Gen. McChrystal put it in a memo to Obama last September, 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.) That same month, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Afghan government's corruption—and, therefore, its "lack of legitimacy"—posed as big a threat as the Taliban. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked, "We could send a million troops, and that wouldn't restore legitimacy in the government?" Mullen replied, "That is correct."
This assessment fits a broad historical pattern. A new study by the RAND Corp., How Insurgencies End, finds that weak democracies (and that's one way to describe Afghanistan) have "a particularly poor record at countering insurgency," winning only 15 percent of the time. To win such wars requires public support; and public support, the study concludes, "can be won only if reforms are both legitimate and effective."
If Karzai doesn't institute reforms—so that he can provide basic services and thus gain the trust of his people, and they don't feel they have to turn to the Taliban—then the war is a waste of blood and money.
Given Karzai's track record, it's tempting to drop him and find somebody else. The problem is, there isn't anyone else. Karzai is the only president of Afghanistan, and no viable alternative seems to be waiting in the wings. If Obama wants to fight this war (and he decided in December that he does, at least for now), he's stuck with working "by, with, and through" Karzai. And that being the case, he and his senior officials have to act as if they're working by, with, and through him enthusiastically. The appearance of ambivalence only emboldens the enemy.
This is why, last month, after tensions nearly reached the snapping point, Obama realized he had to slam the brakes and reverse gears. And so Eikenberry accompanied Karzai for the long flight over here (perhaps exhaustion, from talking with Karzai at such length if not from the flight itself, explains his gaffe). A smiling Holbrooke greeted the pair at Andrews Air Force Base. Biden hosted the Afghan president at one reception, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the senior Obama official whom Karzai is said to trust the most—hosted another. Dozens of his government's ministers, representing all areas of the Afghan economy and security apparatus, are meeting with their American counterparts for intense planning sessions. And the two presidents will spend private time together on Thursday, for at least three hours, possibly more—which is when Obama will have to be at his most agile, playing good cop and bad cop all by himself.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo of Hamid Karzai by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.