Karzai Bests Obama, For Now

Afghan President Karzai told  Obama at a news conference Wednesday that "[Our] frankness will only contribute to the strength of the relationship." Leslie H. Gelb on how Karzai won round one, and how Obama can regain the upper hand.

President Barack Obama and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai shake hands following their joint news conference in the White House, May 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Hamid Karzai’s long visit with President Obama this week was a public love fest with only mild groping in private. Obama didn't threaten his guest about repairing his well-documented sins of rulership. Peace and mutual praise were prearranged two weeks ago by Karzai’s envoy to D.C., none other than Ashraf Ghani, one of Karzai’s main rivals in the recent disputed presidential election. Why the kid gloves and the love fest? Because, despite America’s huge investment in lives, money, and prestige, Karzai has the upper hand—for the moment—or so it appears after two days of meetings.

One might have thought that Karzai’s disdain for America would number his days in power. But Obama blinked. He saw that Karzai seemed willing and able to risk both his own and America’s interests and, at that point, stopped the public attacks.

The quixotic Afghan leader has the bargaining advantage after a lengthy bout that began weeks ago when Obama threw hard punches at Karzai, who punched back forcefully, staggering the American president. Publicly and privately, Obama started the fight by slamming Karzai for corruption, electoral shenanigans and governmental incompetence, in effect telling him: “shape up or else.” Karzai reacted by essentially firing UN appointees from the supposedly independent Electoral Complaints Commission. Obama countered by at least temporarily canceling Karzai’s visit to the White House and Karzai escalated by hosting Iran’s President Ahmadinejad in Kabul, slobbering all over him about common values and cooperation. Karzai then delivered the final blow by meeting ostentatiously with representatives of a major Taliban-linked insurgent group, to the White House’s evident displeasure.

One might have thought that Karzai’s disdain for America would number his days in power. But Obama blinked. He saw that Karzai seemed willing and able to risk both his own and America’s interests and, at that point, stopped the public attacks, launching the present charm offensive instead. Karzai won this round because Obama had trapped himself politically with pricey rhetoric and hefty troop commitments. The president had elevated the defeat of terrorism in Afghanistan to one of the nation’s top national security priorities, and while he surely realized he couldn’t win with Karzai, he also concluded that Karzai was now a fixture and that he couldn’t win without him.

Thus the agenda for this week’s Washington love-in has turned toward lesser matters. Instead of threats about corruption and good governance, Washington offered friendly advice, designed to help the Afghan inveigle more money from a reluctant Congress.

Obama and Karzai continued to spar over when and how to seriously negotiate with Taliban leaders. The Afghan has been reaching out to Taliban leaders and wants to go further. Washington argues for waiting and, hopefully, getting stronger on the ground before serious talks begin, while in the meantime, focusing on trying to buy off lower-level Taliban fighters. The leaders also tangled about American efforts to build ties with Afghan tribal chiefs, a move Karzai believes undercuts him. And Karzai continued to complain about civilian casualties, rather unfairly given U.S. military care.

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, who remains dubious about Karzai’s leadership, and U.S./NATO troop commander Stanley McChrystal, who is now Karzai’s principal advocate and defender, have hotly debated these issues. Their dispute came to the fore after Eikenberry sent off cables to D.C. damning Karzai and McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy—without telling McChrystal beforehand. For some time, Obama’s Washington team essentially sat back and allowed these two to become proxies for the real and unspoken policy debates. That’s all over. Now, they have been ordered to love each other in public, and they joined hands in the love fest.

Even as the two presidents fence over second-tier issues this week, Karzai was well aware of the 800-pound gorilla that now sits quietly and menacingly in the back of their meeting rooms. This gorilla will soon usher in Obama-Karzai Round II, a round in which Obama can regain the upper hand. Expect that round to begin shortly before July 2011—that is when Obama’s unspecified troop withdrawals from Afghanistan are slated to begin.

Karzai did not raise that subject directly this week since Obama holds most of the cards on this issue. Instead, he went on the offensive and stressed that Washington can’t expect Afghans to fight and die if the United States will not make a long-term commitment to Afghan security. That would mean keeping a large percentage of the expected 100,000 U.S. troops (not yet all in country) in Afghanistan for an indefinite and unspecified period. It also would mean an indefinite commitment of billions of U.S. dollars to Kabul. The Obama team and Mr. Obama himself obliged Karzai on this point throughout the two days both in public and in private—but omitted specifics.

Though we still don't know exactly what happened in their private meetings, here’s what Obama needed to do to regain his ultimate bargaining advantages and protect U.S. interests:

First, state firmly and flatly that the United States will begin withdrawals a little over a year from now—and will continue those withdrawals at a steady and careful pace. Such a statement will put the issue squarely on the table. If he left totally vague whether he would continue the withdrawals after July 2011, he didn't gain full leverage.

Second, stress Washington’s strong desire to continue helping Afghans fight for their own freedom and independence with emergency troop support, military and economic aid, intelligence and logistical support etc., while also stressing that help depends on Afghans being willing and able to take on the main burdens of that fight. In other words, he needed to spell out exactly how the U.S. would continue to back Afghanistan, even when and as withdrawals continued.

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Third, make clear that the United States will continue to secure its own interests, principally against international terrorists in Afghanistan and the region, by traditionally effective means: containment, deterrence, alliances, and divide-and-conquer strategies.

Karzai tried to delay and minimize U.S. troop drawdowns. That’s how he holds Washington hostage. Obama should have played his 800-pound gorilla card on Wednesday. Making Karzai understand he has to shape up to survive is the best, and perhaps only, way to force him to shape up. It’s also the best, and perhaps only, way to prepare Americans and others for inevitable withdrawals—and for Obama to spell out how he will craft a more sustainable policy of helping friends and hurting terrorists in South Asia. Word will leak out gradually as to whether Mr. Obama began to reposition the United State to turn the war over to the Afghans, the only ones who can win or lose it in the end.

As the long visit concludes, Karzai wanted a love fest and protestations of unending American loyalty, and Mr. Obama essentially gave it to him.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.