The latest WikiLeaks disclosures, in which U.S. ambassador in Kabul Karl Eikenberry described Pres. Hamid Karzai as a “paranoid” leader without knowledge of “the most rudimentary principles of state-building,” will further strain relations between Kabul and Washington and undermine war efforts against the Taliban.
In an effort to limit the damage from the leaks, Eikenberry issued a statement: “The United States is absolutely committed to building and strengthening a long-term partnership with the Afghan people and the Afghan government. Our shared goals do not change based on the release of purported diplomatic reporting from the past.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also phoned Karzai to reassure the Afghan president of her support.
But the damage containment was too little, too late.
On Saturday, Afghanistan’s Tolo News quoted Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal as saying that “the United States ambassador has lost credibility,” and describing Eikenberry’s role in Afghanistan as “ineffective.” Zakhilwal denied a cable report that he had called Karzai as an “extremely weak man,” and accused Eikenberry of misquoting him to advance his own views: “The ambassador had not thought this would be leaked. His view of the president is very clear. Indeed, what he has accused me of saying is his own opinion about the president. He has attributed that to me in order to add credibility to it.”
Zakhilwal, whom Western officials consider the country’s most competent minister, warned that relations between the Afghan government and the U.S. embassy would no longer be “business as usual,” and that he no longer trusted American officials.
Karzai’s former vice president, Ahmad Zia Masoud, also rejected a WikiLeaks allegation: He said that he had not flown more than $50 million in cash with him on a trip to Dubai, and accused the U.S. embassy of “character assassination.”
The recent disclosures are undoing months of efforts by U.S. diplomats to repair relations with the Karzai government, which were badly damaged after the November 2009 leak of a classified document in which Eikenberry had counseled against the surge in Afghanistan because Karzai was not “an adequate strategic partner.”
The relationship between Kabul and Washington had begun to sour even before then. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Senator Obama blasted Karzai repeatedly while taking shots at President Bush and his Afghanistan strategy. Obama’s motivation may have been political, but Karzai took the criticism personally.
The relationship sank to a new low during Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential election campaign, as Eikenberry and Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, met frequently with Karzai’s rivals, leading the Afghan leader to think the White House was planning to unseat him. One leaked cable shows that Karzai believed Washington was secretly funding his key rival, Abdullah Abdullah, and even at one point asked his defense minister if he could “manage without the United States” in defending the country against the Taliban. (Defense minister Rahim Wardak’s answer was in the negative.)
The leaks also include anti-Karzai remarks by other senior Afghan officials, such as education minister Farooq Wardak and presidential adviser Omar Daudzai. These revelations may add to Karzai’s suspicion of his cabinet ministers and their relationships with the U.S., and lead him to accelerate a purge of government officials with close ties with the West. Already, in June, Karzai sacked interior minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, both highly regarded by Western officials. Analysts say it was Karzai’s suspicion of the officials’ close ties with the U.S. that led to their dismissal.
What should the Obama administration do? While the surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan is beginning to show progress, albeit slow, the administration’s current diplomatic strategy is failing. Military efforts may be a precondition to victory in Afghanistan, but to succeed, the administration needs to craft a working partnership with the Afghan government. At a minimum, this will require a reshuffle of senior American officials in the country. The deficit of trust between the Karzai government and U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan is hindering efforts to improve governance, ensure political stability, curb corruption, and mobilize a political will in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban.
— Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.