Toning it down on Afghanistan

Marco Vicenzino Contributor
Font Size:

As Americans troops continue to engage in their most important campaign since the Taliban fall in 2001, media attention has recently focused on another front: the war of words between the Obama administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai blamed outsiders for last year’s election fiasco. He even rhetorically threatened to join the Taliban at least twice. In response, the Obama administration threatened to withdraw its invitation to the Afghan president for a scheduled May 12 meeting at the White House. This begs the simple question: How did we reach this point?

The frank series of exchanges between the Obama administration and Karzai is actually nothing new. They are a continuation of similar spats that ensued from late 2008 to early 2009. A cease-fire was reached but ill feelings persisted. The resumption of rhetorical hostilities has now intensified.

During the Bush years, there was generally a muted public response to corruption in Afghanistan. Whether this resulted from neglect, indifference or simply being overwhelmed by events in Iraq is subject to debate. The bottom line is that unsavory practices and activities flourished unabated for too long.

In his campaign eagerness to assume ownership of the Afghan war, Obama would inevitably inherit and confront this legacy. From the very beginning, President-elect Obama and his foreign policy team decided to do so head-on. Richard Holbrooke’s initial visit to Afghanistan, before his actual appointment as special envoy, went badly. He immediately clashed heads with Karzai, sowing the seeds for his own demise as an effective special envoy. Further rhetoric during the presidential transition period added more fuel to the fire.

Rumors began circulating that Obama was looking for alternatives to Karzai for Afghanistan’s presidential election. Karzai expeditiously and skillfully began maneuvering behind the scenes to firm up support among the various power factions. Alliances with dubious characters were forged. He even welcomed back to Afghanistan a suspected war criminal, General Rashid Dostum, to secure the minority Uzbek vote.

The Obama administration’s concerns and criticisms of Karzai have been legitimate. They have correctly pointing out the obvious. However, publicly antagonizing Karzai continuously has proven counter-productive and is unlikely to generate the desired results. Where Bush was tone-deaf, Obama needs to tone down. Administration officials need to bang the drum more in private and less in public.

Afghanistan is clearly not the Balkans where megaphone diplomacy and strong-arm tactics yielded dividends. In culturally sensitive societies like Afghanistan, saving-face means everything. How things are done diplomatically often counts more than what is actually achieved substantively.

A dramatic increase in U.S. troops scheduled in the coming months, including a planned offensive in Kandahar, further underscores the need for greater public unity and less discord. Differences and grievances must be handled more assiduously behind the scenes.

Karzai’s leadership role has been precarious since the very beginning. It is no coincidence he is often referred to as the mayor of Kabul. His Pyrrhic presidential election victory may have irreversibly damaged his credibility and legitimacy. Although a stern political survivor, he is currently weakened and wounded. He may never fully recover.

In addition, his authority is being increasingly challenged by a parliament once thought pliable. The Afghan parliament rejected 17 out of 24 of his ministerial nominees in the first round. It is now contesting Karzai’s ability to appoint all members of the commission that determines the validity of elections. The outcome of parliamentary elections scheduled for late 2010 will further determine Karzai’s future and ability to influence the political process. The Obama administration should better heed this reality and provide greater deference to the Afghan political process to unfold.

Karzai’s threat to join Taliban was simply ridiculous and careless. It demonstrates his level of desperation. His eagerness to cut a deal with the insurgents, even prematurely, is partly fueled by a desire to ensure his own political survival. By coincidence or not, Pakistani authorities suddenly apprehended the Taliban’s second most powerful figure. This helped to preserve and increase their own leverage with the Americans and potentially short-circuited efforts by the U.N. and Karzai to reach a deal with the Taliban over the past year.

Simply put, both sides need to tone it down. Unnecessary snubs and provocations will only fuel the fires of animosity. The politics and rhetoric of public confrontation will achieve little, if anything at all. It will only benefit insurgents, political gossip columnists and media outlets desperate for a breaking headline.

Each side may try to exploit the war of words for short-term political gain. However, it is the wider mission that will suffer the long-term consequences, particularly those putting their lives on the line and the innocents who crave for a better life. Ultimately, they are the ones who will pay the biggest price should the mission fail.

Although Karzai is in place for the foreseeable future, the U.S. clearly remains the determining power he depends upon and Obama is the main person he must deal with. As President, Obama naturally has the upper hand and resources to shape the course of events. He must remain above the fray and, together with senior administration officials, avoid public jousting. Leave it to the underlings. If Karzai chooses to do so, he will lose whatever credibility he has left.
A greater effort to channel resources even more locally is just one example of what Obama can do.

No one underestimates the importance of cracking down on corruption and other illicit activities. There is a time and place for this. It must be done with greater discretion and less mud slinging. The public rows are becoming an embarrassment for U.S foreign policy and the international mission. Applying continuous pressure in the public arena will backfire. The administration may be scoring points at home for its tough confrontational approach, but it is losing points on the ground for combat forces. As they surge forward pointing their guns in one direction, the administration has been concentrating its rhetorical guns in another. It would be more productive if it focused more of its energies on building public support for the mission and less on sowing public discord.

Asked about Karzai’s recent controversial remarks, General McChrystal replied, “I spend most of my time thinking not about what people say but what they do, and my partnership with President Karzai has been something I’ve been pleased with and something I’ve relied on as we’ve moved forward in operations, and that’s reflected in his people and his government that I’ve worked with.” Whether the general truly believes his own words is debatable. What counts most is the use of responsible rhetoric at a critical juncture. These are the words of an experienced soldier and a seasoned diplomat. On the military front, it is clear where leadership emanates on the issue of Afghanistan. Necessity requires similar leadership on the civilian side, where it is still not always clear who is running the show.

Marco Vicenzino is director of the Global Strategy Project in Washington, D.C. He provides global political risk analysis for corporations and regular commentary on foreign affairs for publications/media outlets worldwide. He can be reached at msv@globalsp.org.