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Our AfPak problem and the difficulty of playing well with others

Our AfPak problem and the difficulty of playing well with others

The New York Times has two stories today that neatly illustrate the challenges President Obama and his team face in working with our allies, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Afghanistan story reveals that there may well have been a serious discussion about “doing a Diem to Karzai” — that is, discussion about whether to try to replace Karzai with a more pliant leader. The proponent of this idea was Peter Galbraith, an American who worked on the United Nations team trying to help the Afghan government transition to full, stable democracy. Galbraith is an interesting figure; he was the original author of what became known as the Biden Plan to divide Iraq into 3-parts, and he gained notoriety in recent months for not having revealed an alleged conflict of interest (he stood to make millions of dollars from oil deals in autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq).  

In the story, Galbraith emphasizes that he never actually implemented the plan, though he did apparently try to reach out to Biden’s office to persuade the vice president on the matter. The problem, however, was that Galbraith’s U.N. bosses were appalled at the proposal, and Karzai got wind of the plan. In short order the United States had to climb down. Karzai is (understandably) angry and suspicious about what he doubtless views to be arrogant and perhaps even imperialist behavior on the part of the Americans. And, as a consequence, our influence over the Kabul government is arguably less than it might otherwise have been.

The Pakistan story has a different lede, but perhaps is of a piece with Afghan story. The stated lede is: Pakistani harassment of U.S. contractors and junior diplomats is undermining the war effort. The implicit link to the other story is: our Pakistani allies believe the United States has been acting in an arrogant, imperialist fashion and, as a consequence, our leverage over them is less than it might otherwise be.

It may strike some as odd that an administration that has taken such pains to present itself as more reasonable and less prone to cowboy diplomacy than its predecessors would find itself in this predicament. The truth is that the Obama and Bush teams held to very different theories about how best to cajole our war allies into more constructive cooperation. The Bush team, belying the cowboy image, believed that we got better results when we pressured beleaguered allies like Karzai or Musharraf in private and offered assurances in public. The Obama team believes that they will get better results if they pressure in private and in public. Moreover, the Obama team feels the need to demonstrate to domestic critics that it really is getting tough on both the Afghan and the Pakistani government.

It is very hard, however, to do that kind of public pressuring without antagonizing the government you are trying to cajole. In the same way, it is very hard to engage in various regime-change plotting without generating similar antagonisms.

That has been part of the AfPak story over the last year and it is part of the reason that the policy results have been mixed.

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