Thomas L. Friedman on Karzai; Hard Options

Thomas L. Friedman, in an op-ed article published on the New York Times website on March 30 and in the print edition on March 31, 2010, has provided an important analysis which complements our article, “Afghanistan: Obama Begins to Grasp the Reality of Karzai,” also published on March 30. The Observer had not seen Friedman’s piece before writing his own.

Friedman argues that the U.S. has violated three cardinal principles of conducting foreign policy in the Middle East:

Rule No. 1: When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. Karzai brazenly stole last year’s presidential election. But the Obama foreign policy team turned a blind eye, basically saying, he’s the best we could get, so just let it go. See dictionary for Vietnam: Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky.

When you can steal an election, you can steal anything. How will we get this guy to curb corruption when his whole election, and previous tour in office, were built on corruption? How can we be operating a clear, build-and-hold strategy that depends on us bringing good governance to Afghans when the head of the government is so duplicitous?

One reason you violate Rule No. 1 is because you’ve already violated Rule No. 2: “Never want it more than they do.”

Which leads to Rule No. 3: In the Middle East, what leaders tell you in private in English is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language.

Zeroing in on the central dilemma facing the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan, Friedman concludes:

As Filkins and Landler noted, “During the recent American-dominated military offensive in the town of Marja — the largest of the war — Mr. Karzai stood mostly in the shadows.” And if Karzai behaves like this when he needs us, when we’re there fighting for him, how is he going to treat our interests when we’re gone?

We have thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan and more heading there. Love it or hate it, we’re now deep in it, so you have to want our engagement there to build something that is both decent and self-sustaining — so we can get out. But I still fear that Karzai is ready to fight to the last U.S. soldier. And once we clear, hold and build Afghanistan for him, he is going to break our hearts.

–Thomas L. Friedman, “This Time We Really Mean It,” New York Times, March 30, 2010.

Hard Options

It is time to consider hard options.

One option would be to block the funding by the United Nations of any electoral support for the National Assembly elections to be held on September 18, 2010. Such funding should be restored only if and when Karzai withdraws his decree seizing control of the Electoral Complaints Commission, restores the language of the electoral law to its text before his decree, and takes other measures to guarantee free and fair elections in September.

No U.N. funding should occur until these actions have actually been taken, not just promised. Any restoration of funding should contain clear conditions safeguarding the freedom of the elections which, if violated, would result in an immediate cessation of funding and U.N. support operations.

Other “tough” options should also be explored. These include resolving the contradictions inherent in the alleged ties of Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, to the CIA and U.S. dependence on him for intelligence and other matters in Kandahar and the South.

An even harder question lurks just behind the question of what to do about Wali Karzai, and that is the question of what Hamid Karzai’s involvement with the CIA may have been in the past.

These issues, and what to do about Wali Karzai as the U.S. prepares to launch an intensive compaign to secure Kandahar, require concentrated attention and decisive action at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

For, as we wrote on October 6, 2009,

The failure in Afghanistan has been a diplomatic and political failure, not just a military failure. Military strategy will falter if diplomatic and political strategy does not keep pace. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan by proceeding on the naive belief that we can “stand up” a legitimate government born of fraud, or that we can “stand up” an Afghan army both capable of defeating the Taliban and loyal to a government lacking in legitimacy and losing public support. Legitimacy is the key to developing both a more effective government and a more capable army and police. Without legitimacy, both possibilities appear to be but chimeras in the desert sand.

The Trenchant Observer

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About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is an international lawyer who has taught innternational law, human rights, and comparative law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), and an international development practitioner who has worked on human rights and judicial reform projects in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and in Russia. He has also worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in Europe, the Middle East, throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Observer speaks fluent French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, in addition to English. He holds undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University, and a Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.) in International Law from Harvard University. As an undergraduate, he studied modern European history at Stanford, where he won the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best honors thesis in history.

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