Karzai got on famously with Finn's successor, Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who was a great charmer and schmoozer and, on account of his unique double portfolio -- he was both ambassador and Bush's special representative in Afghanistan -- enjoyed direct access to the U.S. president. Khalilzad also had the benefit of timing. He was tasked with producing U.S. achievements in the run-up to Bush's 2004 reelection bid and Karzai's own presidential election the same year. Karzai's interests and Bush's were once again briefly aligned: Both needed Afghanistan to look like a success story.
Khalilzad had fought and won the argument in the White House that Afghanistan needed more resources, and he arrived with the first serious development money allocated since the war and a driving thirst to get things done. Karzai was flattered by the attention "Zal" paid to him; Khalilzad was also the first U.S. official to side with Karzai and publicly criticize Pakistan's role in harboring the Taliban, winning further Afghan admiration -- as well as the enmity of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
But when Khalilzad moved on in 2005 to take over the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, he left behind few lasting achievements. U.S. funding and attention evaporated again as election-year exigencies faded and the war in Iraq took a turn for the worse. The Americans became obsessed with "quick impact projects," which were largely aimed at satisfying local tribal power brokers and did little to kick-start Afghanistan's economy or rebuild its infrastructure. Funding for the Afghan security forces remained grossly inadequate: From 2002 to 2009, $20 billion was spent financing them, less than is projected to be spent in 2010 and 2011 alone.
Khalilzad was followed by Ronald Neumann, an experienced diplomat whose father Robert had been the prescient ambassador to Kabul in the 1970s. But Neumann arrived at the worst possible time, as Iraq was swallowing up the bulk of U.S. resources and the U.S. Congress had begun to demand better results and more accountability from Afghanistan. Karzai found himself deluged with visiting members of Congress, all giving him different advice and orders. At the time, though he was still far from hostile to the United States, he grumbled to me that entertaining delegation after delegation was making his life miserable.
By the final years of Bush's presidency, U.S. dealings with Karzai had become a tangle of mixed messages. William Wood, Bush's ambassador in Kabul from 2007 to 2009, arrived in Afghanistan fresh from fighting the drug cartels in Colombia as the U.S. ambassador there and was under pressure to repeat the performance in Afghanistan, where opium production was booming. Wood demanded that Karzai order aerial spraying of the poppy crop in the country's turbulent south. Karzai, fearing a farmers revolt, refused and began to mistrust Wood. The ambassador was also undermined by Bush, who spoke regularly with Karzai via videoconference and refused to push the Afghan president on drugs or other embassy priorities, such as corruption. These conflicting signals from Washington set the stage for Karzai's dealings with Bush's successor, a relationship that would grow more dysfunctional even as the Taliban insurgency spread and the Afghan people's frustration with the United States grew.
FOR DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Afghanistan was the good war: a foreign-policy cause that allowed presidential hopefuls to establish their national security bona fides while keeping themselves clear of the debacle in Iraq. Among them was Sen. Barack Obama. "I believe this has to be our central focus, the central front, on our battle against terrorism," Obama said in a July appearance on CBS's Face the Nation. "I think one of the biggest mistakes we've made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job here, focus our attention here. We got distracted by Iraq."
I met with Obama just before he took the oath of office, shortly after he had received briefings from the Bush administration and suddenly realized that the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan was far worse than he had been led to believe. Key decisions on more troops, money, and other issues had been held back throughout 2008 as Bush decided to pass them on to his successor. Obama wasn't taking the reins of a good war -- he was inheriting a foreign-policy quagmire.
Obama arrived in office with a laundry list of issues he wanted Karzai to address: nepotism and corruption in the Afghan government, lack of good governance, and the country's proliferating drug trade. But none of Obama's top White House advisors had any recent experience with Afghanistan or knew any of the players there well. Karzai felt deeply insecure as he now knew nobody in Washington, and nobody was making the effort to get to know him. Even as Obama committed far more resources to Afghanistan in his first two years in office than Bush did over eight years in two terms, the Afghan leader grew convinced that the new U.S. president was out to get him. He began to fear for his political survival.