Afghanistan: Obama Begins to Grasp the Reality of Karzai

On March 30, 2010, Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler of the New York Times reported that earlier this month the White House had canceled a visit by Hamid Karzai to Washington, following his electoral coup and blatant takeover of the Electoral Complaints Commission. They describe his reaction as follows:

Incensed, Mr. Karzai extended an invitation of his own — to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who flew to Kabul and delivered a fiery anti-American speech inside Afghanistan’s presidential palace.

“Karzai was enraged,” said an Afghan with knowledge of the events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. “He invited Ahmadinejad to spite the Americans.”

The dispute was smoothed over only this week, when Mr. Obama flew to Kabul for a surprise dinner with Mr. Karzai….

But the red carpet treatment of Mr. Ahmadinejad is just one example of how Mr. Karzai is putting distance between himself and his American sponsors, prominent Afghans and American officials here said. Even as Mr. Obama pours tens of thousands of additional American troops into the country to help defend Mr. Karzai’s government, Mr. Karzai now often voices the view that his interests and the United States’ no longer coincide.

Indeed, the recent behavior by Mr. Karzai offers the latest illustration of the central dilemma that faces the Obama administration in Afghanistan: how to influence the actions of an ally who they increasingly regard as unreliable, without undermining America’s ultimate goals here.

At a lunch in January with Afghan leaders, Karzai reportedly described himself as holding the line in Afghanistan against the Americans:

In January, Mr. Karzai invited about two dozen prominent Afghan media and business figures to a lunch at the palace. At the lunch, he expressed a deep cynicism about America’s motives, and of the burden he bears in trying to keep the United States at bay.

“He has developed a complete theory of American power,” said an Afghan who attended the lunch and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.”

Mr. Karzai said that, left alone, he could strike a deal with the Taliban, but that the United States refuses to allow him. The American goal, he said, was to keep the Afghan conflict going, and thereby allow American troops to stay in the country.

–Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler, “Afghan Leader Is Seen to Flout Influence of U.S.,” New York Times, March 30, 2010.

As the authors note, the Ahmadinijad invitation is not the only evidence of the disloyalty of the Afghan president to the American and NATO forces who keep him in power.

U.S. officials need to carefully review the history of their interaction with Karzai over the last eight years, and reread what Ambassador Karl Eikenberry had to say about him and his government in his cables of November 6 and November 9, 2009.

For only when the Americans and their allies have disabused themselves of their last illusions about Karzai, and stifled their last unjustified hopes that he might reform, will they begin to have the clarity of vision that they will need to extricate themselves from their present predicament.

The Trenchant Observer

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