Once Barack Obama concludes his review of U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, he must turn to the urgent task of repairing our country’s diplomatic relationship with Hamid Karzai, freshly inaugurated for another five-year presidential term. That relationship, critical to our efforts in Afghanistan, is presently in dire straits.
Trouble began in January, during a visit to Kabul by then vice president–elect Joe Biden. Biden had previously insulted Karzai by angrily storming out on him while the two were in the middle of a formal dinner. In their January meeting — the first between Karzai and a member of the incoming administration — Biden reportedly focused much of the conversation on berating Karzai for his fecklessness.
There followed a series of snubs directly from the Obama White House. Obama’s first conversation as president with Karzai was not until mid-February, fully four weeks into Obama’s term and after he had announced his decision to send 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. Later that spring, at a press conference, Obama referred to Karzai as “very detached,” and several senior administration officials leaked to the press Obama’s view that Karzai had become an impediment to U.S. goals in Afghanistan.
Matters came to a head with the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Known for his brusque, overbearing style, Holbrooke quickly alienated Karzai, often chastising him in front of his own ministers and sitting in meetings with his back toward Karzai — a sign of extreme disrespect in Afghan culture. Holbrooke’s rapport with Karzai has reportedly deteriorated so much over the past few months that Karzai now refuses even to sit in a room with him.
Most recently, somebody in the Obama administration made the error of leaking a classified cable prepared by Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. In that cable, Eikenberry questioned Karzai’s leadership as well as his willingness to tackle corruption in the Afghan government. He went on to recommend that the United States hold off on sending additional troops to Afghanistan until it is confident that Karzai is a credible partner.
To be sure, many of the Obama administration’s feelings towards Karzai are entirely justified, and Eikenberry’s observations may well have merit. But stating these views publicly undermines Karzai and drastically weakens our leverage with him. He has become paranoid about the administration’s intentions, and has concluded that some Obama officials, including Holbrooke, are now actively working to sideline him. Consequently, he is less willing to take advice from the administration or to speak openly with it about challenges to security and stability in Afghanistan — fearing that anything he says will only be used against him by people who have already lost confidence in him.
This is a recipe for failure. Karzai appoints ministers and governors and presides over the Afghan military and national police. A strong partnership with Karzai is critical if the United States is going to make any progress in improving Afghan governance, rooting out corruption, and succeeding against the Taliban insurgency.
Reestablishing that partnership will require a number of concrete steps. Obama will need replace Holbrooke or at least remove Afghanistan from his portfolio, because Holbrooke can no longer serve as an effective intermediary between Obama and Karzai. Likewise, Obama will need to evaluate the extent to which Eikenberry’s relationship with Karzai has been compromised by the leaked cable.
Obama will also need to invite Karzai to the White House or Camp David for a series of face-to-face meetings. Whether Obama likes it or not, over the next five years his political fate is linked, to a large extent, with Karzai’s. They will be working together to tackle what is arguably Obama’s top foreign-policy priority. Obama needs to bond with Karzai and win him over so that the former will be in a better position to push and prod the latter.
None of this is to say that Obama should shy away from criticizing Karzai when appropriate. But those criticisms and threats should occur behind closed doors and with safeguards against poisonous leaks. Otherwise, the relationship between Karzai and the Obama administration will grow more and more hostile, until at some point the two parties will be working entirely at cross-purposes. Then the war will be lost, no matter how many more troops the United States sends to Afghanistan.
– Alexander Benard, a New York attorney, has worked at the Department of Defense and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.