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06.28.10

Petraeus' First Big Problem

Washington has been abuzz with talk of housecleaning among the top people in Kabul since Gen. McChrystal’s departure. Peter Galbraith on what to watch for during Gen. David Petraeus’ hearing.

When Gen. David Petraeus’ confirmation hearing begins today, here is one thing to look for: Who holds the reins in Afghanistan?

With General Stanley McChrystal gone, there have been public calls for the heads of the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, and President Obama’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke.

The last thing President Obama needs now is a group of new faces who believe the U.S. strategy is working, and who take his recent Karzai charm offensive seriously.

Their offense, it seems, is that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai doesn’t like them.

It is a novel thought that a corrupt and ineffective foreign leader who stole his most recent election should decide who represents America in his country.

It is also dead wrong.

Eikenberry took over a dysfunctional embassy and now runs one of the largest diplomatic missions in the world. In sending a cable outlining his concerns about McChrystal’s surge before the president made his decision, Eikenberry fulfilled his responsibility to give the boss his best judgment, based on his embassy’s understanding of the situation in Afghanistan.

Leslie H. Gelb: Petraeus Locks Obama In Holbrooke, for his part, has brought characteristic energy to his assignment as special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has mobilized people and financial resources to both countries, with Pakistan, significantly ignored in the previous administration, now the second largest recipient of U.S. aid. He has excellent relations with Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, whose leaders he has mentored.

I presume Holbrooke has doubts about the prospects for success of the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. He is smart and certainly sees on the ground what Eikenberry and I have seen. But, if he does have reservations, they have not found their way to his friends or the press, which is the mark of a professional.

Karzai’s problems with Holbrooke go back to last year’s presidential election. The fraud was obvious on election night when large pro-Karzai majorities were reported from provinces where almost no one had voted. At a lunch the next day, Holbrooke politely asked Karzai if he intended to respect the mechanisms in Afghanistan’s electoral law for handling fraud. Karzai, who has since admitted that his reelection was fraudulent, went ballistic.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should have stood behind their envoy. Holbrooke was conveying their message that stability in Afghanistan is best served by having a president legitimately elected. Instead, the administration pandered to the temperamental Karzai, and temporarily sidelined Holbrooke.

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Karzai understood this to mean the U.S. didn’t care too much about election fraud. He strongly resisted efforts to adjudicate the phony ballots, prolonging the electoral crisis for several months, providing a propaganda windfall to the Taliban. The end result was a Karzai second term in circumstances where many Afghans and foreigners rightly see him as illegitimate. This in turn has undermined U.S. military strategy that depends on the existence of a credible Afghan partner for its success.

Ambassador Eikenberry’s sin, in the eyes of his critics, is that he doesn’t believe the surge will work, and said so in a secret cable to President Obama. It is apparently irrelevant that Eikenberry is right. Eikenberry’s cable simply stated the obvious: For the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy to work in Afghanistan there must be a credible Afghan partner—and Karzai is not such a partner. Eikenberry’s critics need to explain how we can win without an Afghan partner or how Karzai is, or could become, a credible partner.

But, they should not be allowed to duck the issue.

Under Karzai’s leadership, the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated every year since 2004. But, this year, he may transform bad into a catastrophic. Right now, the conflict in Afghanistan is largely confined to the Pashtun regions, and is essentially a civil war between the Pashtun-led government and the Taliban, an entirely Pashtun movement.

In September, Afghanistan will hold elections, paid for by U.S. taxpayers, for a new parliament. Karzai is determined to take over the parliament and has issued a decree giving him full control of Afghanistan’s electoral machinery. A Karzai effort to steal the parliamentary elections will provoke a violent reaction that could transform an inter-Pashtun civil war into a wider ethnic war that could tear Afghanistan apart.

The U.S. will have to be deeply engaged diplomatically to keep the erratic and ambitious Karzai from destroying his own country. Eikenberry and Holbrooke understand the man and the terrain. The last thing President Obama needs now is a group of new faces who believe the U.S. strategy is working, and who take his recent Karzai charm offensive seriously.

Clearly there have been strains in the relations between Eikenberry and Holbrooke, which is hardly surprising since both men sit atop large organizations devoted to making progress in Afghanistan. But both Eikenberry and Holbrooke are exceptionally competent and they know it is essential to work together.

With Afghanistan possibly headed for a full-scale civil war, this is not the time to replace an experienced and accomplished diplomatic team. The mission in Afghanistan is difficult enough without the Afghan leader believing he has the upper hand in his relations with the United States.

If President Obama decides he needs a new diplomatic team, that is his prerogative. But, he should never let the likes of Hamid Karzai choose who represents the United States.

Peter W. Galbraith served as Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Afghanistan in 2009.