Note to the White House: You don't own Karzai -- he owns you
In the March 26 edition of this column, I warned that bargaining with the Taliban for a settlement in Afghanistan would open a fissure between Afghan and U.S. interests. But it should be clear that such a new fissure would join others that are already cracking up U.S.-Afghan relations. What the Obama team needs to determine is whether it can achieve its objectives in Afghanistan while its relations with President Hamid Karzai crumble.
On March 29, the New York Times described another crack in the foundation. According to the story, an angry Karzai, after having been de-invited to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House, invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul to deliver an anti-American speech at the presidential palace. Ahmadinejad's speech occurred while Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting U.S. troops in the country.
The piece went on to discuss a lunch meeting at his palace during which Karzai declared that "the Americans are in Afghanistan because they want to dominate his country and the region." According to the article, Karzai asserted that he could reach a settlement with the Taliban but that U.S. officials are preventing that in order to prolong the war and their military presence in the region.
It is expected that Karzai, like any leaders in his position, would wish to demonstrate to his compatriots that he is not a mere crony of a foreign power. But Karzai wasn't shy about delivering a similar message in a November 2009 interview with PBS's Newshour, whose audience includes the Washington establishment: "[T]he West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan. It is here to fight the war on terror.... We were being killed by al Qaeda and the terrorists before Sept. 11 for years, tortured and killed; our villages were destroyed, and we were living a miserable life. The West didn't care nor did they ever come." It appears as if the Obama team should not count on receiving any gratitude from Karzai.
How can Karzai, the leader of an incredibly poor and dependent country, get away with antagonizing the U.S. government? He realized, perhaps before U.S. policymakers did, that the heightened U.S. commitment of prestige in Afghanistan means that the United States no longer has the option of either redefining its mission in a way that would exclude Karzai or of withholding large-scale support for Afghanistan's institutions. With escalation, the U.S. government became dependent on Karzai and not vice versa.
What U.S. policymakers now need to contemplate is whether they can achieve their goals in Afghanistan while relations with Karzai and the government in Kabul deteriorate. The White House needs the American public, not to mention its soldiers, to believe in the Afghan mission. Publicly quarreling with and disparaging Karzai and his government can quickly shatter that belief. Similarly, Karzai's open distrust of America's motives is no doubt a boost to the Taliban's recruiting.
U.S. officials think they have valid complaints about the performance of Karzai and his government. It must seem paradoxical to many of those officials that their leverage over Karzai declined with each increment of U.S. escalation. They'd better quickly accept that paradox if they wish to avoid a debacle.