To Karzai, the message of indifference at best -- and outright hostility at worst -- continued from the White House. Not only did the ambassador remain, but even after the Obama administration decided to dispatch a major surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to the war in late 2009, top U.S. officials made statements or visited Kabul without bothering to inform Karzai in advance. In March 2010, when national security advisor James L. Jones complained to reporters that Karzai had not done enough to improve governance "since day one" of his second term, Karzai blew a fuse, and Obama had to warn his subordinates to treat the Afghan president with respect. Last July, one of Karzai's closest advisors, Mohammed Zia Salehi, was arrested by a U.S.-led Afghan anti-corruption force on charges of corruption. Karzai, determined to spite the Americans, freed him.
Bob Woodward's unflattering portrait of the White House's internal deliberations over Afghanistan in Obama's Wars, released last fall, further damaged the already shaky foundation between Karzai and Obama. For Karzai, it was unprecedentedly naive of a sitting U.S. president to allow his cabinet's intimate deliberations to be made public (not to mention the book's claim that the CIA believed Karzai to be "manic-depressive"). By October 2010, relations were so fraught that Karzai stormed out of a meeting with Eikenberry and Petraeus over contracts with private security firms, which Karzai had abruptly announced he was canceling, again telling his shocked interlocutors that he'd be better off joining the Taliban.
When I met with Karzai in November, I asked him why he had turned against the West. He vigorously objected to the premise of my question and challenged me to recall any time in the nearly three decades we had known each other that he had ever been anti-Western. Still, he made it clear that he no longer trusted the United States, its representatives, or their advice. Petraeus's brusque, aggressive approach to the war has made Karzai nervous and angry. (The president's aides have fueled his mistrust, feeding him rumors that Petraeus is in a hurry because he aspires to the U.S. presidency and is simply using Afghanistan as a steppingstone, rumors Petraeus has repeatedly denied.) Karzai has come to believe that NATO's counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies are both failing. And he is now threatening to turn to Iran and Pakistan for help in mediating with the Taliban -- whose repositioning as a patriotic nationalist force he seems to take seriously -- as long as the United States refuses to do so.
The fault is not the Obama administration's alone, of course. Karzai has been belligerent, stubborn, and mercurial, at times refusing to accept logical arguments. Several European ambassadors with whom I spoke in Kabul argue that both sides deserve a share of the blame -- Karzai for sparking crisis after crisis, and the United States for letting him down again and again, allowing the situation to deteriorate as far as it has and not listening to Karzai when he has legitimate complaints, such as the excessive civilian casualties, the high-handedness of contractors, and the failure to rein in Pakistan's support for the Taliban.
But the root of this dysfunction is simpler than all that: It is the non-relationship between Obama and Karzai. The U.S. president has been striking in his refusal -- or inability -- to get on with Karzai, never working to create the personal rapport the Afghan president enjoyed with his predecessor. It is Obama, not Bush, who has committed massive resources to Afghanistan while trying to improve the tattered U.S. reputation in the Muslim world. But Karzai still considers the Bush era a golden age for his presidency, a time when Karzai could pick up the phone any time and talk to the American leader.
Despite what the Obama administration may think about the acute failings of the man, getting rid of Karzai is not an option. Afghanistan is not Vietnam circa 1972; Karzai is a twice-elected president, one whose victories were endorsed by Washington and the international community. Kabul's educated urban elite and many among Afghanistan's non-Pashtun ethnic groups may remain critical of the Karzai government, but it is still popular in large parts of the country, enjoying an approval rating of more than 70 percent in mid-2010, according to an Asia Foundation survey. Karzai's critique of U.S. military tactics and his attempts to talk to the Taliban resonate with many Afghans, in part because they reflect the facts on the ground.