Commentary Magazine


Soothing Karzai

Hamid Karzai is at it again. For the second time in recent days, he has lashed out at the West, blaming foreign officials for election fraud and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban if there is any erosion of his country’s sovereignty. Such comments — coming from the man who benefitted from election fraud and who is able to stay in power only because of all the military assistance he receives from the West — are, no doubt about it, infuriating. But they are hardly unexpected, given that Karzai has a habit of boiling over in public right after he has been pressured by the United States, which is what happened when President Obama visited Kabul.

The worst thing the administration can do in response is to hit back in an unseemly public tit-for-tit. Better to work quietly behind the scenes with Karzai, trying, as General McChrystal is, to bolster his standing as a legitimate and popular war leader while also working to improve governance at the cabinet, provincial, and district levels. To some extent, Karzai is an obstacle to lower-level progress, especially when he keeps in power his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, whose notorious dealings in Kandahar are a major drawing card for the Taliban. But as Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan note, Karzai is not all bad:

Karzai began his second term as president by keeping in office many of his best ministers and governors. Helmand province Gov. Gulab Mangal, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, for example, have accomplished a good deal for their country. The Major Crimes Task Force designed to pursue cases of high-level corruption is gaining strength. And the number of trained Afghan army and police forces accompanying NATO troops into Marja, while still modest, was double the number of locally available forces accompanying U.S. Marines on similar operations in Helmand last year.

Bottom line: we don’t have any choice but to work with Karzai. Pulling U.S. troops out because we’re unhappy with him isn’t an option; our forces aren’t there as a favor to Karzai but to prevent a Taliban takeover that would be far worse for our interests than anything Karzai is likely to do in office. There is also no realistic chance of getting a new Afghan president anytime soon because Karzai was just elected to a five-year term. So we have to make the best of the current situation and try to soothe the sensitive Karzai rather than getting his back up with high-handed reprimands, especially in public.