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Can the U.S. Learn to Live with Karzai?

6 minute read
Tim McGirk

Not so long ago, senior Obama Administration officials were insinuating that Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, might be addled from sampling too much of “Afghanistan’s biggest export” — which, of course, is opium. NATO commanders mused aloud about having the President’s troublesome warlord brother in Kandahar eliminated. But last week’s four-day Washington visit underscored that Karzai is once again an indispensible ally to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

So why has the White House hit the reset button in its treatment of Karzai? “It’s a relationship of mutual hostages,” says Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. In short, Presidents Karzai and Obama need each other. Behind the courtly flourishes exchanged by the two leaders in the Oval Office lies the realization that Karzai’s cooperation is essential if Obama hopes to meet his goal of beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by mid-2011. Polls show the war is becoming increasingly unpopular among Americans, and NATO allies are starting to beg off. Britain’s newly elected coalition government appears less stalwart over Afghanistan than was former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is premised on winning the political support of the civilian population for the government that is being protected by Western troops — a goal that can’t be accomplished without Karzai.

(See pictures of Karzai and other world leaders.)

The Afghan President’s seemingly erratic behavior — his flirtation with Iran, his rhetorical threat to join the Taliban — is nothing less than an attempt to ensure his own survival after NATO forces pull out of his country. First off, he has to convince Afghans, especially the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, that he is an Afghan nationalist rather than NATO’s obedient valet. As a shrewd chess player, Karzai is also thinking several moves ahead: If, as he expects, NATO eventually pulls out of Afghanistan without destroying the Taliban, how will he avoid swinging from a Kabul lamppost?

Karzai’s solution, which riles Washington, is to reach out to other regional players, such as Iran, Russia and India, to act as a counterbalance to the Taliban and its Pakistani backers. His other gambit has also been greeted with skepticism in Washington: a peace offer to the Taliban, which, if nothing else, according to Tellis, is designed to “fracture the insurgency’s leadership.”

In Washington, Karzai got most of what he came for. There was the symbolic value of Obama’s public embrace, which makes him less vulnerable to his many foes in Kabul and across the border in Pakistan. He also got a pledge that Afghan detainees — except for a few dozen in Guantánamo — will be transferred from NATO to Afghan custody, a move that will help him win support for his upcoming peace jirga (consultative assembly) later this month, at which he aims to achieve a national consensus on the terms of possible talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

(See pictures of Obama’s first year in the White House.)

NATO commanders are not keen on Karzai’s peace offer to the Taliban leadership. Instead, they favor a reintegration plan for midlevel commanders and their fighters to weaken the insurgency as coalition forces intensify their military operations against the Taliban. Still, during his visit, Karzai won a promise that Washington will not interfere in the process — although his outreach may need stronger U.S. backing if it is to convince the Taliban to make a truce. U.S. officials in Kabul insist that Karzai is wasting his time; they say the Taliban’s top leadership is too closely aligned with al-Qaeda and its ideology to agree to any peace plan unless NATO agreed to first withdraw all its troops, which Washington finds unacceptable. Britain, in haste to cut down its troop casualties in Helmand province, is also backing Karzai’s wide-ranging peace offer and has helped him draft a proposal for the peace jirga. And the Afghan leader’s peace initiative is likely to be more enthusiastically welcomed by his own war-weary people than it has been by U.S. officials.

(See “Karzai and Obama: Whose Strategy for Afghan Endgame?”)

As part of their ritual of reconciliation last week, U.S. officials kept quiet about their long-standing concerns over Karzai’s ability to deliver good governance, while a clearly moved Afghan leader visited wounded American soldiers — and the graves of some of those killed in his country — and expressed his gratitude for their sacrifices.

Karzai’s support is vital to NATO’s planned summer offensive against Taliban fighters in and around the southern city of Kandahar. Not many Kandaharis want to see the regime of the Taliban’s austere medievalism restored, but nor do they want to be caught in the middle of what some NATO commanders are billing as the largest offensive of the war. Fearing heavy civilian casualties, Karzai has until now been lukewarm about backing the military plan, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has begun to soft-sell as “a process” rather than a full-scale military offensive.

But the “process” in Kandahar has already turned bloody. In recent weeks, the Taliban have assassinated dozens of government officials and police — those not too scared to show up at work — and have set off bombs around the city. And U.S. special forces have been hunting down and killing local Taliban commanders. But for the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan’s second city to be broken, NATO needs not only the backing of Karzai but for him to rein in his half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the provincial council and the city’s de facto ruler. “The President did not raise the issue of my brother in Kandahar,” Karzai said of his meeting with Obama last week. “I raised it with him, and to the satisfaction of both sides.” But apropos of removing his brother, he said he was in no position to fire a democratically elected official.

Coddling Karzai, as the Bush Administration did, failed, but so did the Obama Administration’s initial bullying. Having resigned itself to the fact that he’s the only viable partner the U.S. has in Afghanistan, the challenge facing Washington, as Council on Foreign Relations defense analyst Stephen Biddle sees it, is convincing Karzai to “start behaving like a wartime leader and less like an innocent bystander in a fight between Americans … and the Taliban.”

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