Shadow Government

Turning the Karzai challenge into the Karzai crisis

By Will Inboden The leaked cables from U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry this week add a new wrinkle to President Obama’s protracted decision-making over his Afghanistan strategy. Eikenberry’s cables apparently urge against increasing the US troop posture because of his concerns about Afghan President Karzai’s corruption, competence, and legitimacy. Eikenberry and Karzai have long ...

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By Will Inboden

The leaked cables from U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry this week add a new wrinkle to President Obama’s protracted decision-making over his Afghanistan strategy. Eikenberry’s cables apparently urge against increasing the US troop posture because of his concerns about Afghan President Karzai’s corruption, competence, and legitimacy. Eikenberry and Karzai have long had a poor relationship, so while Eikenberry’s concerns are no surprise, the public airing of them at this juncture is. The timing of the cables as well as their leak this late in the process is curious, given that Gen. McChrystal’s request for more troops has been known since August, the senior Obama team’s deliberations have been going on for a couple of months, and by many accounts the Administration plans to announce its decision within weeks. The cables and the leaks might represent some new front in the administration’s internal battles, although there are hints that they might also reflect Obama’s own search for an exit strategy

This is a further negative side effect of Obama’s prolonged and increasingly public indecision on Afghanistan: it exacerbates internal administration divisions as they become more visible and thus less easy to gloss over or repair. It is also fraying relations with allies, especially America’s most important NATO partner in the mission, as British leaders experience growing frustration with Obama’s delays while facing declining public support for their own troop deployment.    

But the greatest damage may be in Kabul where the Obama administration has taken their Karzai challenge — the difficulty of working with an erratic and corrupt leader — and turned it into their Karzai crisis, as the Afghan president becomes increasingly uncooperative and increasingly vocal in his criticisms of American intentions. Criticisms which, as Jackson Diehl notes, may just be reflecting some of Obama’s own words. Which is why the White House needs to remember that Obama’s rhetoric on Afghanistan has at least four important yet different audiences: the American public; leaders in allied nations; American troops deployed to Afghanistan; and the Afghan people and government. His rhetorical efforts to assuage American domestic anxieties about the Afghan mission might inadvertently also signal lack of resolve to allied leaders and U.S. troops, and needlessly alienate Karzai even further.     

If there is one overriding lesson from Iraq, it is that security precedes political progress. As Peter Feaver observed, the Bush administration faced similar acute concerns about Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. But then (as now in Afghanistan) it was neither right nor feasible for the United States to forcibly install another leader. And as important, the Bush administration realized that the first step needed in Iraq was to restore basic security with a new counterinsurgency strategy and troop surge. This eventually created the space for political progress and substantially improved performance by Maliki. The parallels with Afghanistan are hardly exact, but the principle remains the same: The first step towards a more honest and effective Afghan government will be protecting the Afghan population and defeating the Taliban.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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