We’ve noted the Obama administration’s penchant for bullying America’s allies and kowtowing to its adversaries. This Washington Post story presents another case-in-point — our treatment of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. As Afghan presidents go, Karzai makes a good mayor of Kabul (in a bad year). Nonetheless, right now the U.S. needs Karzai and Karzai needs the U.S. Thus, in the words of one senior administration official, “it’s not sustainable to have a ‘War of the Roses’ relationship [I assume he means the movie, not the real war] where we basically throw things at each other.”
This, though, has been our relationship with Karzai since Barack Obama became president. As one senior Pentagon official put, “We’ve been treating Karzai like [Slobodan] Milosevic” and “that’s not a model that will work in Afghanistan.”
The reference to Milosevic is also a reference to Richard Holbrooke who played a major role in dealing with the former Yugoslavia and, under Obama, is a special envoy to Afghanistan. According to the Post, Holbrooke’s “aggressive style has infuriated” Karzai.
But Holbrooke is not alone in this respect. Our vice president, Talkin’ Joe Biden, reportedly became Shoutin’ Joe Biden during a dinner with Karzai shortly before Obama’s inauguration, as the two argued about Karzai’s response to civilian casualties caused by U.S. and NATO operations. It doesn’t seem to have dawned on “Slow Joe” that Karzai must strike a balance between his relations with the U.S. and his relations with various factions in his country.
Hillary Clinton did her part to stoke tensions. During her confirmation hearings shortly after Biden’s outburst she referred to Afghanistan as a “narco-state” with a government “plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption.”
But at the root of our “arrogant” approach to Afghanistan has been President Obama himself. It was he who discontinued the bi-monthly videoconferences with Karzai that President Bush had instituted. It was he who appointed Holbrooke and granted him wide latitude to bully Karzai. And it was he who decided that Holbrooke should signal the administration’s desire for many candidates to challenge Karzai in presidential elections.
But now, according to the Post, the administration is realizing that its “initial strategy may have done more harm than good, fueling stress and anger in a beleaguered conspiracy-minded leader whom the U.S. needs as a partner.” That conclusion seems inescapable. As the Post notes, Karzai’s fear that he no longer had U.S. support caused him to ally with figures the U.S. found even less desirable than the ones it had criticized him for associating with. And with the U.S. perceived as cultivating a number of candidates to oppose Karzai, the opposition never coalesced around a single figure, which played into Karzai’s hands. By May, it seemed clear that Karzai would be re-elected, but the U.S. continued to send what Karzai took to be signals it wanted him to lose.
Now, at last, we’re attempting a “reset.” The CIA has sent a field officer who has strong relations with Karzai to be its Kabul station chief and Hillary Clinton – the Secretary of Reset – tried to charm Karzai at a dinner earlier this week. Meanwhile, Holbrooke is spending more time in Washington and has focused on obtaining international support of reconstruction projects and development programs. This sounds like his highest and best use.
It’s nice that the administration has seen the error of its ways. But what are to make of a president who takes almost a year to figure out that alienating our partner in a war makes little sense? The administration was correct in perceiving that Karzai has major limitations. But why did it conclude that trying to humiliate him was the answer? Why didn’t it conclude, as apparently it has now, that cultivating a close working relationship is the best way to enable Karzai to fix at least some of his problems and to better achieve U.S. goals?
The administration’s approach is so counter-intuitive that I don’t think it can be attributed solely to inexperience. The answer has more to do with Obama’s bad, even perverse, instincts as described at the beginning of this post. The real wonder, then, is not that Obama started out on the wrong track but that he’s fixing to change course, if in fact he really is.
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