Friction between Karzai and Obama's team first came to a head during Afghanistan's 2009 presidential election. In the lead-up to the August vote, Karzai was convinced by his advisors that Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy, was trying to get rid of him by encouraging other candidates, such as Northern Alliance leader Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, to stand against him. The presidential palace buzzed with rumors that the CIA and Britain's MI6 had lined up massive resources to unseat Karzai.
In fact, Holbrooke was leading the charge in Washington to convince the administration and Congress to commit more resources to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but his good intentions did not seem to convince Karzai. When the election results were disputed amid claims of vote-rigging, Holbrooke intervened to try to salvage the results, asking Karzai to stand for a second round of polling. But the move seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of Karzai's aides about Holbrooke. It was left to Sen. John Kerry, rather than a member of Obama's own team, to smooth over the relations. Even today, Karzai still refuses to accept that the election was flawed, and he still thinks that the Americans were trying to unseat him. Months later, Karzai's senior aides told me repeatedly that they still believed the United States wanted Karzai to lose.
The botched election -- which cost some $150 million and two U.N. officials their careers -- and Karzai's worsening paranoia became a catalyst for the Obama administration's internal debates over its Afghanistan policy, which was subjected to a detailed review in the fall of 2009. Civilian officials, most notably Biden and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, were unnerved by Karzai's mercurial behavior and a resurgent Taliban. They fought for scaling back the U.S. investment in a conflict that no longer seemed to have much prospect for success.
Karzai was "not an adequate strategic partner," Eikenberry wrote in a Nov. 6, 2009, cable to Washington later leaked to the New York Times, adding that the president and his advisors "assume we covet their territory for a never-ending 'war on terror' and for military bases to use against surrounding powers." Karzai and his aides, in turn, were furious that they were never asked to be full partners in Washington's policy review. Once again, they thought, the Americans were making decisions about Afghanistan without consulting the Afghans. When Obama declared in December 2009 that U.S. troops would start pulling out of Afghanistan by July 2011, Karzai -- who had not been consulted in the matter before the speech -- was shocked.
On the other side of the debate from Eikenberry was counterinsurgency guru Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, who reportedly wanted to double down on the war with a surge of as many as 50,000 troops. Karzai's aides told me they trusted McChrystal; the general seemed to truly understand the Afghan leader, deferring to him in decision-making and treating Afghan criticism of U.S. military tactics with respect and thoughtfulness rather than rejecting it out of hand.
When I met with McChrystal in Islamabad in early 2010, I was taken aback by his understanding of the Afghan environment. That this austere former special-operations commander understood how to demonstrate his respect for Afghan dignity and sense of sovereignty while still largely getting his own way was a revelation. Early on, McChrystal persuaded Karzai to travel around the country with him in an effort to enhance both U.S. and Afghan government prestige. The enduring picture of McChrystal in Afghan eyes is of the most powerful U.S. military officer in the country humbly sitting cross-legged on a carpet at Karzai's feet while Karzai addressed tribal elders. When McChrystal was forced to resign in June over his comments about top U.S. civilian officials in a Rolling Stone article, Karzai begged the White House not to sack him.
But it is Eikenberry who remains in office, though he has never quite recovered from the leak of his cable; it has damaged not only his own standing in Kabul, but also that of the State Department. More than a year later, some of Karzai's aides still can quote verbatim from the memo.