Stuck With Karzai

Afghan President Karzai has been lashing out lately against the impression he is a U.S. puppet. The lesson, says Bruce Reidel, is to quit choosing other countries’ leaders.

With all the recent tension between the West and the leader of Afghanistan, it’s easy to forget that we’re the ones who installed him. Now, Bruce Riedel explains, we’re stuck with him.

In a speech yesterday in Kandahar, the former capital of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and soon to be the target of a major NATO offensive, Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared his independence from “foreigners” and promised that he would not be a puppet of the United States. Karzai has had a week of tough speeches since President Obama visited Kabul, blasting the West for interfering in last year’s presidential elections and trying to dictate how his government should rule. Then he had a long phone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which seemed designed to get bilateral relations back on track.

If we wanted to get rid of Karzai, then we should have made that clear before last year’s election.

Behind this seemingly erratic behavior is a clever political message. Karzai knows his people do not want to be run by outsiders. They need and want the foreign military presence to maintain security and deal with the Taliban but they do not want to treated like an occupied nation. Afghans want decisions about their future made by Afghans, not NATO or the U.S. Karzai is playing to this nationalist sentiment. Of course, it also helps him fend off charges of corruption and incompetence in his administration, which are coming more frequently in the West. He is also prickly and does not respond well to criticism delivered in public.

The irony of this is that it is the U.S. and the West that chose Karzai to be Afghanistan’s ruler eight years ago. He seemed the perfect match: a Pashtun who had decent ties to the other communities—Tajik, Uzbek, and Shia—that were the core of the Northern Alliance which America and its allies helped to topple the Taliban. He even had ties to parts of the Taliban, since he had been their choice back in the mid-1990s to be Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.N. Now many in the U.S. seem to have buyer’s remorse.

It’s a little late for that now. If we wanted to get rid of Karzai then, we should have made that clear before last year’s election or we should have taken a harder stance against election fraud last summer. Now we say Karzai is the legitimate president of Afghanistan and our essential partner in the longest war in our country’s history. We have no interest in reopening last year’s election fiasco.

Both sides need each other and need to get out of the cycle of insult and apology that has become all too familiar. This will be especially important as a political process begins to evolve in Afghanistan. Karzai has made clear that he wants to try to see if at least parts of the Taliban-led insurgency, like Gulbudnin Hekmatyar’s faction, are open to a political resolution of the insurgency. Pakistan is eager to play a role in this process as well and Karzai had extensive discussions on this when he was in Islamabad last month, especially with Chief of Army Staff Kayyani. Karzai characteristically then accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate of arresting members of the Taliban who were allegedly indirectly talking to him, a charge rejected by the Taliban and Pakistan. So we are not alone in having difficulty managing our chosen Afghan leader.

Washington has a long history of choosing foreign leaders in insurgencies and then having trouble when they assert their independence. In Vietnam we went through a decade of generals each chosen to be our man but who developed minds of their own. In Iraq we have shuffled through the exiles we backed against Saddam and then found to be more Iran’s friends than ours. The lesson is not to choose other peoples’ leaders. It’s too late then to cry foul.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At the president’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. His book, The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future, came out in paperback in March with a new postscript.