U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry Was Right: The Cost of Afghan President Karzai’s Runaway Rhetoric

The departing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan had it right. Leslie H. Gelb on why President Karzai’s out-of-control comments should be a wakeup call to American hawks and doves alike.

Jason Reed, Pool / AP Photo

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry spoke for all Americans, hawks and doves, in publicly slamming President Karzai last weekend. Soon to depart Kabul, the ambassador couldn’t stand another minute of Karzai’s gratuitous attacks on an America that is bleeding itself in lives and dollars for Afghanistan’s freedom. So, he had a few undiplomatic words for the Afghan leader he has long despised in private. Eikenberry’s unmistakable point was this: If Karzai persists in trashing the United States, he will succeed only in convincing more and more Americans to say “enough,” let’s get out of Karzai’s hell hole as quickly as possible. Indeed, if Americans were to hear Karzai’s ingratitude as often as they were exposed to Anthony Weiner’s private parts, U.S. troops would be on their way out of Afghanistan next week.

While the U.S. media focus almost exclusively on the impending announcement of the first U.S. troop withdrawals, here’s a taste of the rhetoric in Afghanistan. America’s best friend, Hamid Karzai, continues to say thank you to the United States in his special way. Last Saturday, he charged that NATO coalition forces are “here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that.” Imagine that. America is fighting in Afghanistan for its own interests. (I wish that we were.) And a few weeks ago he uttered this bon mot: “If [NATO] does not stop airstrikes on Afghan homes, their presence in Afghanistan will be considered that of an occupying force.” He added, “History has shown how Afghans deal with occupiers.”

Eikenberry, long a private critic of Karzai, exploded publicly as follows: “When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost--in terms of lives and treasure--hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people… they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here.” Then, he warned: “At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good, when we reach a point that we feel our soldiers and civilians are being asked to sacrifice without a just cause, and our generous aid programs dismissed as totally ineffective and the source of all corruption… especially at a time our economy is suffering and our needs are not being met, the American people will ask for our forces to come home.”

Quite rightly, Eikenberry couldn’t continue to play the stupid diplomatic game of making excuses for Karzai’s gross ingratitude. The Obama administration’s standard way of responding to Karzai’s attacks is to simply say that he’s doing it for “his own domestic audience.” Now what on earth does that mean? First, it means he was talking to his own people, not to Americans. But it is nonsense to suggest that Americans aren’t listening also and aren’t getting the right message. Second, the message is that Karzai is trying to hoodwink his own people by suggesting that the corruption and inefficiency of his government results from America’s inept help and America’s presence. But the Afghan people know better, and they are not fooled, as any American or journalist has served there would attest.

The policy conclusion for the United States is truly inescapable: Karzai knows far better than Washington that his government cannot survive the departure of U.S. and NATO forces, whether that goodbye takes another five or 10 years. So, he wants to have it both ways. He wants to convince Afghans that their ills are caused by America, and to convince America that unless it keeps large numbers of troops there indefinitely, that the Taliban will return to power and pose a mortal threat to the United States. Well, if Washington had any brains, it would not continue to let Karzai get away with this double-dealing.

The United States has no vital interest in Karzai’s survival or, indeed, in whoever rules Afghanistan. There was a time, 10 or even five years ago, when international terrorism and al Qaeda were still centered in Afghan territory or Northern Pakistan. But it is an indisputable fact that the terrorist threat now finds homes in dozens of places throughout the world. Attacks can come from Somalia, Yemen, London, or Jersey City, among other places. Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan are no longer special or vital the way they were a decade ago.

Thus, the next year should be devoted solely to buttressing America’s interests, not Karzai’s. U.S. troops must start coming out in accordance with America’s needs, while making clear that we are prepared to help those Afghans who want to retain their independence of the Taliban and fight for that independence. Karzai’s words should be a wakeup call for America.