Obama team must deal with Karzai

April 11, 2010


— When Afghan President Hamid Karzai was meeting with provincial governors recently, he looked at his dinner and remarked, “Maybe the foreigners put some poison in my food.”

This story was told to me by someone who attended the event and said he thought Karzai was joking. But the Afghan leader’s remark shows how low U.S.-Afghan diplomatic relations have sunk in a week when Karzai has repeatedly railed against foreigners and declared he won’t be anyone’s puppet.

In recent weeks, Karzai has rushed to Iran and China to prove he doesn’t depend solely on Washington and rebuffed U.S. demands that he curb corruption.

Dysfunctional dealings

Yet before calls mount in Congress for us to quit Kabul, we should examine the dysfunctional way the Obama administration has dealt with the Karzai problem. It has made a bad situation worse.

Despite U.S. frustration with Karzai, he’s the elected president, and there’s no alternative out there. We have to deal with the Afghan leader we’ve got.

Yet the civilian side of the U.S. government can’t seem to figure out how to talk to the prickly Karzai. A large part of the problem lies with the unwieldy structure Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set up when she named a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

Holbrooke, renowned for his abrasive personality, alienated Karzai from the get-go. He’s chastised Karzai in public and left the Afghan leader convinced the administration wants to oust him.

In a culture that prizes respect, such public rebukes, even if deserved, ensure Karzai will lash back. (Firmness in private is a different matter, as both Sen. John Kerry and Secretary of State Clinton have effectively demonstrated when they met with Karzai in Kabul.)

Holbrooke’s relationship with Karzai is so strained there is hardly any communication between them. What use is a special representative to Afghanistan who can’t talk with the leader in Kabul?

Karzai’s hostility toward Holbrooke — who flies in only for brief, occasional visits — has colored his relationship with the U.S. embassy. Afghans are uncertain who speaks for President Obama — Holbrooke or U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. To add to the confusion, the CIA seems to have its own separate policy on Karzai.

Nor has Obama helped. Unlike President Bush, who held monthly videoconferences with Karzai, Obama has distanced himself from the Afghan leader. He made his first visit to Kabul as president only last week, for a few hours in the middle of the night, to lecture Karzai on corruption. In a relationship in which trust has totally eroded, this fly-by-night meeting made matters worse.

Military model

The U.S. official with the best relationship with Karzai is Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. U.S. military officials have taken a different approach to Karzai from civilians, making frequent contact and ostentatiously displaying respect. “I do feel strongly that trust is the most important thing we can build,” McChrystal said last week.

The U.S. commander takes Karzai’s displays of nationalism more in stride, in the hope he’ll start acting like a national leader. This approach resembles the tack taken by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker toward Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who also frustrated U.S. officials with his failure to combat corruption or govern well.

Those two U.S. officials — who worked in tandem, unlike the U.S. embassy and military command in Kabul — recognized Maliki would become more outspoken as he positioned himself for ruling post-occupation Iraq. They shrugged off Maliki’s slights, while encouraging him to stand up to radical Shiite militias. When he finally did so, they let him take credit, even though U.S. forces did most of the work.

The Obama administration would do well to follow that model in Kabul. The issue is not whether Karzai denounces foreigners, but whether — as Maliki did — he begins to take responsibility for ensuring stability in troubled areas such as Kandahar.

The administration should also designate one point person to deal with Karzai — preferably a strengthened U.S. ambassador to Kabul who has Obama’s full backing. The Afghan leader needs to hear one clear message — in private.

The United States can’t afford to engage in an open war of words with Karzai. It is a war we can’t win, and one that could destroy the central foreign-policy undertaking of Obama’s first term.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. trubin@phillynews.com


cowboy 8 years, 1 month ago

Lets see now Tom , Bush put in the Karzai admin , then abruptly started the Iraq war on a false pretense , committed the majority percentage of troops to Iraq , Spent 750 billion dollars on this fiasco when he told us it would cost around 80 billion , ran a war against a bunch of sandrats and took longer than WW2 , stated the war would be the next presidents problem , then left it all for Obama to clean up. Gee , what part of my facts are incorrect ?

cowboy 8 years, 1 month ago

Beavis Shewmon writes

Bush is no longer president, comprende? Obama is/was assumed to be equipped to handle the job under any circumstances? Is he or is he not?

Seems to be doing an excellent job ! To me and the majority of US citizens.


PRESIDENT OBAMA 54 (55) 41 (40) 5 (5) -2

PELOSI: 41 (42) 51 (50) 8 (8) -2 REID: 29 (28) 63 (63) 8 (9) 1 McCONNELL: 22 (21) 62 (63) 16 (16) 2 BOEHNER: 19 (18) 63 (65) 18 (17) 3

CONGRESSIONAL DEMS: 40 (41) 56 (55) 4 (4) -2 CONGRESSIONAL GOPS: 19 (20) 71 (72) 10 (8) 0

DEMOCRATIC PARTY: 40 (41) 52 (51) 8 (8) -2 REPUBLICAN PARTY: 28 (27) 67 (66) 5 (7) 0

Yep tommy , your repubs are just surging in the polls , 28% approval 67% disapproval. Notice that huge black hole of independents of which about 2/3 are ex-republicans who cannot stomach identifying themselves as such. Your leader is Palin , enuf said.

Flap Doodle 8 years, 1 month ago

What? All foreign leaders haven't been entranced by the amazing amazingness of our Dear Leader? Inconceivable!

tbaker 8 years, 1 month ago

What part of your “facts” are incorrect? For starters I think you are confusing “facts” with misinformed personal opinion. As someone presently in Afghanistan, working for ISAF in Kabul, I’d like to help you avoid any future public displays of ignorance. To wit; Karzai was elected, not installed by the Bush administration. Sure the election was terribly flawed. Name one in a war-ravaged, third-world country that isn’t. You presume to know so much, tell us how the US or any other country would “put in” a government here when we can’t even influence the selection (nor would we want to) of a district police chief. Having also served in Iraq let me help you out on that score as well: There were/are now WMD’s in Iraq. They’ve been found. The enemy even used them against coalition forces (chemical artillery rounds in IEDs) when I was there. I saw the pretense of that war with my own eyes. You would also do well to recall the near unanimous vote congress and the UN gave Mr. Bush BEFORE we went to war in Iraq. Sure it was his idea, but as Tom points out, your ire is best directed at politicians who voted for that war and are still serving. You’ll find targets for your indignation on both sides of the isle.

Flap Doodle 8 years, 1 month ago

The idea of Dear Leader, who began his political career in the fever-swamp of Chicago corruption, lecturing someone else on keeping to the straight & narrow is a major LOLZ.

Liberty275 8 years, 1 month ago


My apologies. I wouldn't have posted such a glib and stupid post if I knew someone with guts enough to be on the ground in that hellhole would see it. I stand behind everything that brave men and women are doing to help put Afghanistan back together after it was raped by the soviets, usurped by religious tyrants and suffered a third time as collateral in our war to purge the religious tyrants and the terrorists they harbored.

Thank you for doing your duty in Iraq as well. Half the people in this forum aren't American enough to deserve being in the same room with people like you. I did my duty a long time ago. I hope I was half the American then that you guys in theater are today.

All the best to you and your family. Come home in one piece.

Liberty275 8 years, 1 month ago

*, in some billions of years, one of two things are theorized to happen. The universe will implode or it will expand until all matter is ripped apart. When that time comes, nothing ever said or done in this universe will have any meaning whatsoever. Since it is inevitable, it is true that there exists no meaning even now.

Long before then, the sun will run out of hydrogen, expand, then turn the earth and everything on it into liquid and gas. After that, nothing on the Earth will have meaning including the pretty words you are too awkward to use.

Before that, in some 10s of years, you will die. After a brief period of mourning, nothing you will have said or done will have any meaning or even be remembered.

Choose your poison. You may not like nihilism, but you can't run from it and you can't hide. It will be all you have in the end.

On a less cynical note, we as a species of mammal on a smallish planet have evolved enough intelligence to assign meaning to noises and scratch-marks and call them words. Enjoy those words while you can; they are fleeting. I enjoy them and I embrace their meanings, fleeting as they are. Mostly I speak them for fun, other times I speak them because another human deserves praise.

*, you are an ordinary cheap toy of a human. Sorry, but you aren't among those that deserve praise.

I know you can't understand how meaning can exist and not exist at the same time. It seems like a paradox, but it really isn't. All it requires is the ability to think of time in two inevitable periods, the present and the balance and enjoy first while embracing the cold hard reality of the latter. Sort of like being having a hot 20 year old wife while also married to a nasty old hag that does the dishes. Think of it as time polygamy. That should help you remember even if you can't understand.

Graczyk 8 years, 1 month ago

Thinking back on it, the phrase "shock and awe" deployed in this situation seems patronizing nad ethnocentric. "Oooh, look. It's a lighter. Me make fire, your country go boom-boom."

independant1 8 years, 1 month ago

Hell hath no fury like a liberal scorned. (Dick Gregory)

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