Is Saving Karzai Worth U.S. Lives?

As the U.S. envoy casts doubt on an Afghan troop surge, America takes a skeptical new look at its dodgy partner. Reihan Salam on why we have to hold our nose and make it work.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s relationship with the Obama White House is badly broken, and it's hard to see how it can be fixed. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry's explosive call to rethink a troop increase in Afghanistan has renewed doubts within the Obama administration and the larger Democratic foreign-policy community about whether Karzai's government, in its current incarnation, is worth fighting and dying for. And though the president seems to be inching towards a substantial troop increase, these nagging doubts have led to a call for a narrower, more defined commitment to Afghanistan. The fear is that the U.S. mission has become "too big to fail," and that Karzai, like a profligate Wall Street tycoon, is taking the American taxpayer for a ride without making the painful sacrifices necessary to create a viable nation-state.

If Karzai were a clingy ex, Obama could then change his phone number or, in the worst-case scenario, file a restraining order. Instead, Karzai is essential to achieving Obama's strategic objectives in South Asia.

For years, American officials have been profoundly concerned by Karzai's erratic behavior and reports that he tolerates corruption at the highest levels of his government. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post reported in May, the president's advisors had decided "to maintain an arm's-length relationship" with Karzai, and to channel resources to local officials rather than through the Karzai-controlled central government. To that end, President Obama abandoned President Bush's practice of talking to the Afghan president at least twice a month, and he rebuffed all efforts to strike up a closer working relationship. Because Bush had grown so close to Karzai, some critics believed that he—the cowboy president—had grown too deferential. The idea was that by giving Karzai the cold shoulder, Obama would have an easier time demanding results.

But while Bush's partnership with Karzai was problematic, it might nevertheless have been the best approach. Once seen as staunchly pro-American, he has grown increasingly critical of the United States, particularly over heavy civilian casualties that have sparked outrage among Afghans. One interpretation of Karzai's egregious ballot-stuffing during the first and only round of Afghanistan's national elections is that Obama's decision to create some distance deepened Karzai's already deep paranoia. If Karzai were a clingy ex, Obama could then change his phone number or, in the worst-case scenario, file a restraining order. Instead, Karzai is essential to achieving Obama's strategic objectives in South Asia.

For some in Obama's inner circle, the fraudulent election simply confirmed long-held suspicions about Karzai's trustworthiness. Yet that ignores the extent to which he feels as though he has been let down by the United States, under President Obama but also under President Bush. Though one can hardly characterize Iraq as a stunning success, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki consolidated his hold on power only after the United States seized the initiative from the insurgency. Had Maliki been left to his own devices, it is easy to imagine him flailing and eventually being overthrown by a Shia politician willing to take a harder line.

Those who believe that the war in Afghanistan can be salvaged maintain that a successful U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort could give Karzai the breathing room he needs to strengthen the Afghan state, or it will allow others in a national unity government to do the same. Now, however, the Taliban are very much on the rise, and Karzai finds himself forced to make grubby compromises to maintain his grip on power. He has thus stacked his cabinet with a number of unsavory characters, including some notorious human-rights violators like General Abdul Rashid Dostum, further alienating him from his American allies. Karzai's harshest critics believe that he hasn't done enough to take on corruption and warlordism and the poppy trade. This begs the question: how can we expect the Afghan president to wage war on corruption and crime when he’s barely keeping his head above water?

Christopher Buckley: Lessons from Another WarGayle Tzemach Lemmon: Don't Abandon Us, ObamaRather than rethink the arm's-length approach, the Obama White House seems prepared to double down on it. Earlier talk of doing an end-run around Karzai's central government was mostly talk, but that seems to be changing. Supporting promising local leaders instead of Kabul sounds like a decent option. Looked at it another way, however, and it certainly sounds as though the United States is looking to cultivate warlords of its own—a step that won't exactly improve the relationship. Of all the miserably bad options facing the president and his cabinet, the view reportedly backed by Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and Admiral Mike Mullen has the best chance of success: commit to a large troop increase—in the neighborhood of 30,000 or more—in an effort to secure the Afghan population and give the country's civilian leadership, including the paranoid and problematic Karzai, the time and the tools the need to eventually do the job on their own.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.