Obama’s Mishandling of Karzai Is Bearing Bitter Fruit

What accounts for President Hamid Karzai’s bizarre decision to fire two of the most effective members of his government — Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence director Amrullah Saleh? The supposed cause was their failure to prevent a Taliban attack on a recent peace jirga, even though the incident was a relatively minor one and did not result in many casualties. It is said that there are deeper disputes beneath the surface, including Saleh’s opposition to large-scale releases of Taliban detainees — something that Karzai favors even though the Taliban has not offered any comparable concessions. But Ali Jalali, an esteemed former Afghan interior minister who now teaches at National Defense University in Washington, thinks there is something else going on as well. The New York Times quotes him as follows:

“The root of this is the perception that President Karzai got last year from the kind of cold reception that he got from the American administration, and that made him feel insecure,” said Ahmed Ali Jalali, who was Afghanistan’s interior minister from 2003 to 2005. He now teaches at the National Defense University in Washington.

That certainly accords with my own analysis of Karzai: like most politicians, he is primarily interested in personal survival, and if the U.S. does not commit itself to helping him, he will look for allies in all the wrong places — among warlords and drug traffickers, for a start, but also among the Taliban and even in Iran. In other words, the Obama administration’s get-tough approach with Karzai has backfired, precisely as I and many other analysts warned it would.

The administration has since tried to reverse course; it hosted Karzai for a gala state visit in Washington, for instance. But such gestures, while welcome, cannot instantly dispel more than a year of distrust. Moreover, Obama’s deadline for starting to withdraw from Afghanistan (July 2011) causes Karzai to doubt that the U.S. will be around long term and only reinforces his desire to ingratiate himself with other powerful actors — to the detriment of the goals we seek to accomplish in Afghanistan.

I don’t want to let Karzai off the hook. He is erratic, moody, and deeply flawed. He is certainly no great leader. But his flaws have only been exacerbated by the Obama administration’s mishandling.