KABUL, Afghanistan – When Afghan President Hamid Karzai was meeting with provincial governors recently, he looked at his dinner and remarked, “Maybe the foreigners put some poison in my food.”
This story was told to me by someone who attended the event and said he thought Karzai was joking. But the Afghan leader’s remark shows how low U.S.-Afghan diplomatic relations had sunk in a week when Karzai repeatedly railed against foreigners and declared he won’t be anyone’s puppet.
In recent weeks, Karzai has rushed to Iran and China to prove he doesn’t depend solely on Washington and rebuffed U.S. demands that he curb corruption.
Yet before calls mount in Congress for us to quit Kabul, we should examine the dysfunctional way the Obama administration has dealt with the Karzai problem. It has made a bad situation worse.
Despite U.S. frustration with Karzai, he’s the elected president, and there’s no alternative out there. We have to deal with the Afghan leader we’ve got.
Yet the civilian side of the U.S. government can’t seem to figure out how to talk to the prickly Karzai. A large part of the problem lies with the unwieldy structure Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set up when she named a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.
Holbrooke, renowned for his abrasive personality, alienated Karzai from the get-go. He’s chastised Karzai in public and left the Afghan leader convinced the administration wants to oust him.
In a culture that prizes respect, such public rebukes, even if deserved, ensure Karzai will lash back. (Firmness in private is a different matter, as both Sen. John Kerry and Secretary of State Clinton have effectively demonstrated when they met with Karzai in Kabul.)
Holbrooke’s relationship with Karzai is so strained there is hardly any communication between them. What use is a special representative to Afghanistan who can’t talk with the leader in Kabul?
Karzai’s hostility toward Holbrooke – who flies in only for brief, occasional visits – has colored his relationship with the U.S. Embassy. Afghans are uncertain who speaks for President Barack Obama – Holbrooke or U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. To add to the confusion, the CIA seems to have its own separate policy on Karzai.
Nor has Obama helped. Unlike President George W. Bush, who held monthly videoconferences with Karzai, Obama has distanced himself from the Afghan leader. He made his first visit to Kabul as president only last week, for a few hours in the middle of the night, to lecture Karzai on corruption. In a relationship in which trust has totally eroded, this fly-by-night meeting made matters worse.
The U.S. official with the best relationship with Karzai is Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. U.S. military officials have taken a different approach to Karzai from civilians, making frequent contact and ostentatiously displaying respect. “I do feel strongly that trust is the most important thing we can build,” McChrystal said last week.
The U.S. commander takes Karzai’s displays of nationalism more in stride, in the hope he’ll start acting like a national leader. This approach resembles the tack taken by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker toward Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who also frustrated U.S. officials with his failure to combat corruption or govern well.
Those two U.S. officials – who worked in tandem, unlike the U.S. Embassy and military command in Kabul – recognized al-Maliki would become more outspoken as he positioned himself for ruling post-occupation Iraq. They shrugged off al-Maliki’s slights, while encouraging him to stand up to radical Shiite militias. When he finally did so, they let him take credit, even though U.S. forces did most of the work.
The Obama administration would do well to follow that model in Kabul. The issue is not whether Karzai denounces foreigners, but whether – as al-Maliki did – he begins to take responsibility for ensuring stability in troubled areas such as Kandahar.
The administration should also designate one point person to deal with Karzai – preferably a strengthened U.S. ambassador to Kabul who has Obama’s full backing. The Afghan leader needs to hear one clear message – in private.
The United States can’t afford to engage in an open war of words with Karzai. It is a war we can’t win, and one that could destroy the central foreign-policy undertaking of Obama’s first term.