Beware an ally betrayed. Unlike an enemy, you can’t fight them openly or cast them off as they wait, planning from up close, to settle the score. A little-noticed passage in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new memoir about “a clumsy and failed putsch” sheds new light on how Afghan President Hamid Karzai has become just such a scorned partner, backing his longstanding claims that the United States actively tried to manipulate his country’s 2009 election to remove him from power.
That revelation may shed light on Karzai’s reluctance over the past several months to sign the bilateral security agreement that would extend the American military presence in Afghanistan, even as he claims to want a deal and despite his government’s near-total dependence on U.S. aid and military power, and American threats to simply withdraw if one can’t be reached.
Gates’s book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, provides rare insights into the war cabinet and decision-making process of a sitting president. While passages where he questions Obama’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan and harshly criticizes Vice President Biden’s foreign policy judgment have drawn headlines here, in Kabul the news has been his frank admission that high-ranking administration members, including Richard Holbrooke—the famed formed ambassador who was appointed special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009—colluded to oust Karzai.
Describing President Obama’s directive to Holbrooke to persuade President Karzai to delay the 2009 Afghan elections, Gates writes, “For Holbrooke and others at the table, it provided the time necessary to identify a viable alternative to Karzai, who they thought had to go. If the Afghan constitution was an impediment to achieving this goal, the hell with it.”
The bid to find and presumably then boost a contender who could block Karzai from getting a majority of votes, forcing him into a runoff where he could be defeated, sprang from American leaders’ deep distrust of him. Senior officials, including President Obama, who Gates writes, “can’t stand Karzai,” regarded him as a weak leader, tainted by his nation’s corruption (the NGO Transparency International ranks it the world’s most corrupt country, along with North Korea and Somalia) and his own family’s, and incapable of executing the ambitious state-building plans that were a cornerstone of U.S. policy.
A leaked 2009 diplomatic cable from Karl Eikenberry, the former general and U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, revealed a common attitude toward Karzai: “His inability to grasp the most rudimentary principles of state-building and his deep-seated insecurity as a leader combine to make any admission of fault unlikely, in turn confounding our best efforts to find in Karzai a responsible partner.”
Gates’s account may cause trouble in Washington but it caused no surprise in Kabul, where it was seen as vindicating officials, including Karzai, who have long accused the U.S. of meddling in the 2009 election and seeking to undermine the president. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, who has been tweeting out articles that report on Gates’s revelation, told British newspaper The Guardian that, “There was no exaggeration on our side when talking about this, and now a very senior U.S. official is accepting this fact and talking about it.”
When Karzai won the 2009 election in spite of U.S. efforts, the White House was stuck negotiating with a man who was sure that he had been betrayed and became an increasingly hostile and unpredictable partner. As Gates writes, “Our future dealings with Karzai, always hugely problematic, and his criticisms of us, are at least more understandable in the context of our clumsy and failed putsch,” which he assumed Karzai knew about at the time, saying he “was well aware of the American efforts to unseat him”—suspicions that the new account confirms.
The future dealings with Karzai that Gates refers to are happening now and have been stalled for months as a critical aspect of United States foreign policy and the fate of the military are negotiated in an atmosphere of acrimony and distrust. Karzai has taken the chance to lord his leverage over the U.S., releasing prisoners tied to the Taliban, refusing to sign the security agreement, and practicing a brinksmanship where he continually adds new demands and threatens to walk away altogether if they are not met. This despite the overwhelming support for the deal from the advisory Jirga that he himself convened, the $8 billion in annual U.S. aid that will be lost if a security deal is not signed and the real possibility that without U.S. backing Karzai’s tenuous hold on power, which many assert has never extended far outside the capital, will erode quickly after a military withdrawal and leave him vulnerable to internal enemies.