Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Karzai Miscalculation

With the relationship between the American and Afghan presidents in tatters, it’s worth noting just how far back Barack Obama’s mishandling of Hamid Karzai goes. This revealing Washington Post article from May 6, 2009 relates a story about a meeting between the two men in July of 2008, when Obama was still a presidential candidate.

Karzai was fairly obsequious and Obama was mistrustful. The former talked up progress in Afghanistan and offered, “I’m at your disposal, Senator Obama.” Yet, “Obama voiced concern that the situation was worse than Karzai had acknowledged, [Sen. Chuck] Hagel recalled. He ‘was not taken in,’ Hagel said, ‘by all of the happy talk.’”

Which is to Obama’s credit. But surely there was a productive way to exploit the Afghan president’s declaration of obedience. Karzai might well have been embellishing, but if Obama was truly interested in a fresh start in Afghanistan he could scarcely have hoped for a better opening. Instead, once he was elected, he threw Karzai’s offer back in his face:

Ten days before Obama’s inauguration, Karzai told Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. during a private meeting in Kabul that he looked forward to building with Obama the same sort of chummy relationship he had with Bush, which included frequent videoconferences and personal visits.

“Well, it’s going to be different,” Biden replied, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. “You’ll probably talk to him or see him a couple of times a year. You’re not going to be talking to him every week.”

It’s hard to make a sensible person feel bad for Hamid Karzai, but the above exchange just about does the trick. There is no question that Obama was working what he thought of as an effective angle to bring accountability to a deeply problematic government. But there is also no question that this approach was informed by a reactive dismissal of everything George W. Bush did during his time in office. According to the Post, “Obama advisers believe the relationship that Bush developed with Karzai masked the Afghan leader’s flaws and made it difficult to demand accountability.”

But accountability cannot simply be demanded. It must be cleverly finagled. And so, things devolved steadily, while Karzai struggled to save face in his own country. Obama rarely dealt with him and the White House rejected his request for a bilateral meeting in Washington.  The Afghan president acknowledged the tension in the relationship but claimed, “the fundamentals are strong and steady.” At the same time, administration figures, most notably, special envoy for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke was pushing for Afghans to challenge Karzai in the then-upcoming elections.

Of course, since the Post story, things have gone from bad to worse. Last December, when Obama announced that some 30,000 additional U.S. forces would be heading to Afghanistan, he diluted his message of support with a vow to pull out in 18 months. This itself constituted a new and potent disaster, quite apart from all the snubbing. For the only thing that keeps leaders on America’s side in that part of the world is the assurance that we are all in and there for the duration. Sunni sheiks in Iraq would not have dreamed of joining up with Americans against al Qaeda unless they knew we weren’t leaving prematurely. That reasoning now risks an Afghan-style inversion. Karzai wouldn’t make noise about joining the Taliban unless he had doubts about America’s willingness to outlast them.

On top of Obama’s mixed message, the administration leaked that Karzai’s brother was a drug dealer and then publicly—and impotently—berated Karzai about the non-transparent elections that returned him to power.

The point here is not that Karzai is a paragon of trustworthiness and good governance. He is a very flawed and, in some ways, compromised figure. The issue is how best to keep him from actively obstructing our mission and how to lay the foundation for a genuine tilt toward a stable and accountable representative government in Afghanistan. That’s achieved first by backing up a rock-solid commitment to defeat the Taliban and staying on for institution building. At the same time, Karzai should be intelligently coerced in private, not undermined in public.

For a president who has invested so much in style over substance, and dwelled so incessantly on the virtues of listening over dictating, Obama has achieved a strikingly ill conceived tone on Karzai. What’s more his penchant for the perfect compromise has not served him well on Afghanistan. We cannot at once be committed to fighting and winding down the same war. Nor can we treat a partner as both an ally and an antagonist. For all Obama’s talk of Bush’s failures in Afghanistan, the president could learn a few things from his predecessor.

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