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How to Handle the Infuriating Hamid Karzai

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
June 22, 2011
Wall Street Journal


Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has blasted Hamid Karzai—although not by name—for the Afghan president's latest, intemperate outburst against the U.S. and our coalition partners. This time, Mr. Karzai complained not just about the civilian casualties inadvertently caused by NATO air strikes, as he usually does, but also about the supposed environmental damage caused by dropping bombs that "have chemical materials in them." As if Afghanistan, which has been ravaged by three decades of war, were a pristine paradise before NATO arrived.

It is hard to disagree with Mr. Eikenberry when he says: "When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost—in terms of life 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."

Mr. Karzai does in fact undermine public support for the war effort in America by denouncing the very foreigners who are keeping him alive and in office. But does it serve any purpose to fire back? Perhaps it might, if it shocks Mr. Karzai into being more careful about what he says in the future.

In the end, however, the war isn't about Hamid Karzai. Nor is it about winning the love and gratitude of the people of Afghanistan. NATO's goals coincide with the desires of the vast majority of Afghans who want their nation to be a democracy and not a Taliban-run terror state. But fundamentally we are in Afghanistan to protect our self-interest, to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to being a terrorist sanctuary as it was prior to 9/11.

We cannot let pique at Mr. Karzai cloud our strategic judgment. Even though he is far from ideal, we can still make progress with him at the helm. Our troops have proved that over the past year: They have been able to take back Taliban sanctuaries in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

To the extent that Mr. Karzai winks at corruption that undercuts public support for his government, he has been a hindrance to coalition counterinsurgency efforts. But we could not be doing what we are doing without his backing. NATO forces are in Afghanistan at the invitation of its government, and it would be hard to remain if Mr. Karzai asked us to leave.

But he hasn't, and he won't. In private, Mr. Karzai is not nearly as obstructionist as he is in public. He is now negotiating with U.S. officials over the terms of an accord that would allow U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan for years to come. This is hardly the action of someone who is intent on driving us out.

Our policy regarding Hamid Karzai should be to suck it up and make the best of a bad situation until his term of office runs out—while insisting that we will do everything in our power to stop him from amending the constitution to allow him a third, five-year term in office. In this regard there is good news, or at least a good rumor: Secretary of Defense Bob Gates says that Mr. Karzai intends to step down in 2014 when his current term expires.

Rather than spend the last three years of his tenure clashing with Afghanistan's president, American officials would be better advised to act now to groom a strong and dynamic successor—someone who will be able to consolidate the security gains that foreign and Afghan troops should have consolidated by 2014. (Unless, that is, President Obama orders premature and excessive troop pullouts this summer.)

The model should be what happened in the Philippines in the 1950s. Edward Lansdale, the legendary "Quiet American," was sent as a CIA counterinsurgency adviser to help Philippine forces defeat the Communist uprising known as the Huk Rebellion. His most important act was to groom a lawmaker and former anti-Japanese guerrilla named Ramon Magsaysay. Lansdale used his clout in Washington and Manila—and his access to secret CIA cash—to get Magsaysay appointed defense minister in 1950. Then Lansdale practically became Magsaysay's campaign manager, helping him get elected president of the Philippines in 1953.

Magsaysay turned out to be hard-working and incorruptible—a far cry from the weak and dishonest politicians he replaced. His reforms, such as holding honest elections and weeding out dishonest cops and soldiers, helped undercut support for the Huks.

Afghanistan could use a Magsaysay today. But we won't get one by decrying Mr. Karzai. New Ambassador Ryan Crocker needs to emulate Lansdale and work to ensure that someone more statesmanlike succeeds the incumbent president.

Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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