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How do we deal with Hamid Karzai?

How do we deal with Hamid Karzai?

By Christian Brose

If you have not yet read Elizabeth Rubin’s profile of Hamid Karzai, forthcoming in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, drop whatever you’re doing and get cracking. What’s remarkable is that she manages to paint Karzai in a genuinely sympathetic light while still absolutely burying him. The reasons to approve of this latter conclusion are much discussed, well understood, and well deserved. To that, Rubin adds color and texture and detail and some damn good anecdotes (like this little dagger that Karzai’s reputed drug-runner brother hurled at him: "Well, Hamid, at least I’m only ruining Kandahar. You’re ruining the whole country.")

But as much as it deserves repeating, for it threatens to cripple the entire U.S. war effort, the story of Karzai ruining Afghanistan is more familiar. What we often forget is just what a truly awful, thankless job the man has, and Rubin’s piece captures this with beauty and empathy. Like here:

At the end of the workday, the president takes a brisk 10-minute walk. When I followed after him one cold evening, 10 men or more covered him as he walked along. His cellphone rang. He slipped aside. The men tried to stay near. Assassins have repeatedly tried to kill Karzai. A bullet just missed him in Kandahar in 2002. In 2007, he was rocketed during a speech in Ghazni, between Kabul and Kandahar — but he stayed onstage. He insisted on holding an Independence Day parade last year despite security warnings. And sure enough, a well-trained hit squad fired on the parade, killing several officials and narrowly missing the president. For the last two years security has been so tight, friends say, that the president is getting what they call the Arg syndrome. Sometimes at night he has been known to slip out of the palace with a bodyguard in a beat-up car just to drive around Kabul and see what’s going on. He will express surprise, delight, even, at the new buildings and sights.  

It’s worth reminding ourselves that being president of Afghanistan is a nearly superhuman task. And I feel like that is something George Bush understood better than Barack Obama has thus far, as ironic as that may seem for all of the latter’s talk of empathy. Yes, the Bush team screwed up plenty in Afghanistan, and we’re trying to unwind that legacy now. But Bush seemed to understand that, in a fragile war-torn country like Afghanistan — or Iraq, for that matter — a country with virtually no effective institutions to speak of and where people are trying to build them out of whole cloth, strong U.S. support for individual leaders is often the most realistic way to get your local partners to make difficult but important decisions under extremely tough circumstances.

What’s more, as Rubin illustrates, Karzai is intensely paranoid by nature, made even more so by the paranoia-producing politics of Afghanistan. And I think Bush empathized with and understood how to manage someone of that psychology — by keeping him close, building him up, encouraging him, reassuring him, talking with him weekly, even erring on the side of being too supportive, but then using the confidence you’ve built to bring the hammer down when needed and push him to make tough but necessary decisions that he otherwise wouldn’t make. (Pressuring Karzai to sack Mohammed Fahim in 2004 comes to mind, which Karzai now tells Rubin was a bad idea — evidence of what a good idea it probably was.) This, by the way, was roughly the same approach that Bush (read: Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus) adopted with another weak, paranoid leader of a ravaged country at war: Maliki in Iraq. And in that case, it worked well. Maybe too well.

The empathetic approach to Karzai has its risks, of course — chief among them that we aren’t tough enough with him, he walks all over us, and then for our trouble we’re perceived by most Afghans as propping up a leader they are increasingly frustrated with. That said, the Obama administration has been pursuing the alternative model, and it may be working out worse.

One of the first things the Obama team did — aside from repeatedly dumping on Karzai anonymously in public — was scrap the weekly video conference he had with Bush. All of this sent Karzai an unequivocal signal that he was losing the full support of his biggest ally, which only fueled his paranoia. So he did what any weak, suspicious, self-doubting president of Afghanistan would do: He hedged his bets. He reached out to all of the different factions in the country, and he cut deals to build the broadest possible base of support for himself in the run up to this month’s election. This means that he has brought some utterly awful individuals, warlords and murderers and thugs, onto his ticket. As an act of political self-preservation, it was a master stroke, but if Karzai is reelected, it may render his future government ineffective, and with it Obama’s policy.

Maybe we could have done more to cultivate a credible alternative to Karzai (though I get the sense that Holbrooke and Eikenberry have worked pretty hard on that). Maybe Karzai will undergo a Maliki-like transformation into a more effective leader. Maybe he will lose the election anyway. Maybe. Ultimately, the United States will go to war with the president of Afghanistan we’ve got, not the one we want. And if that man is Hamid Karzai, we’d better figure out how to make him the best Hamid Karzai possible — or, perhaps more realistically, the least bad, least self-destructive, and least threatening to our mission. As for where to find an answer to that question, Elizabeth Rubin’s article is the best place to start.