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Karzai's Moment of Opportunity

Interviewee: Zalmay M. Khalilzad, Counselor, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Author: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 3, 2009

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Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, says despite recent divisions, it's still possible for President Hamid Karzai and rival Abdullah Abdullah to reach agreement on elements of a national unity government. Khalilzad, who last month conferred in Afghanistan with both men, says the Obama administration faces the challenge of "how to engage President Karzai effectively, how to give him incentives to make the right decisions with regard to a competent, strong government, and also in terms of timely addressing the challenges of corruption, of governance, of rule of law, of services for the Afghan people." Khalilzad adds: "I believe that from the beginning this has been a difficult issue for the Obama administration--getting President Karzai to do what's right for Afghanistan and what's right in terms of an effective parternship with the United States."

You obviously were quite familiar with both President Hamid Karzai and his then foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah when you were ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.  Now that Abdullah has pulled out of the presidential runoff race, and Karzai has been declared the official winner, is there still a possibility of any kind of unity developing?

I know both President Karzai and Abdullah quite well, not only dating back to my days as ambassador but dating to the struggle against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Both gentlemen were involved in that struggle. And with regard to the recent developments, when I was there my mission was twofold. One was to make sure that President Karzai understood that if he was to reject the findings of the Electoral Complaints Commission, that that would produce a constitutional crisis in Afghanistan and a crisis in Aghanistan's relations with the world--particularly the United States. And that therefore he would have to cooperate with the findings of that commission [and agree to a runoff election]. As far as the second message, I wanted to stress to them that this was a moment of great importance for Afghanistan, that the world is beginning to question whether the Afghans have it within themselves to do what is necessary for the country to succeed and that therefore they needed to come together to form a strong government to move Afghanistan forward. Both agreed that there should be a unity government. The difference was that President Karzai said that it should come after he has been declared the winner and Abdullah wanted the election to go to the second round and a unity government formed before the vote during the second round. The modalities could not be worked out. It's still possible that in the coming days discussions between the two sides will produce a government that will have elements of both.

When Karzai became president after the successful defeat of the Taliban at the end of 2001 he was extremely popular in the West, and in the United States in particular. When did his government get tainted with corruption?

"There will be a need to appeal to [Karzai's] sense of his place in Afghanistan's history, a final opportunity to take advantage of the presence and support of the international community for Afghanistan to bring about changes in staffing around him and in its government writ large."

You're right that he was very popular at the beginning. He was compared by some even to Nelson Mandela. I remember a Chicago Tribune editorial when I was ambassador in Afghanistan comparing him to Bill Clinton in terms of his political skills. But in more recent years the situation in Afghanistan and Karzai's image around the world has worsened, and the two are related to each other. He has not been as effective in recent years as he was in the early years and corruption has increased in the country, there is no question about that. Violence has increased compared to earlier periods. Confidence in the government has declined and support on the part of the Afghan people for the government has declined. The same, of course, has been true around the world: there has been a decline in the level of support for President Karzai and for Afghanistan.

The United States as well as the other Western countries have all recognized him, and said they would cooperate. Now what does Washington have to do concretely?

The challenge for Washington is now how to use the considerable leverage that the United States has to encourage a strong government to be formed by President Karzai, and for that government to be effective in addressing the key challenges that Afghanistan faces. This is going to be the most difficult challenge facing the administration in relation to Afghanistan besides the issue of troops: how to engage President Karzai effectively, how to give him incentives to make the right decisions with regard to a competent, strong government, and also in terms of timely addressing the challenges of corruption, of governance, of rule of law, of services for the Afghan people. From the beginning this has been a difficult issue for the Obama administration--getting President Karzai to do what's right for Afghanistan and what's right in terms of an effective parternship with the United States.

It was written before the election that he had surrounded himself with a number of unsavory characters including his vice president. Is that still the case?

There will have to be changes. This is the last chance for President Karzai. This is his final term.  There will be a need to appeal to his sense of his place in Afghanistan's history, a final opportunity to take advantage of the presence and support of the international community for Afghanistan to bring about changes in staffing around him and in its government writ large, and in terms of programs, so that he can be remembered as a leader who helped Afghanistan succeed, not one who lost the best opportunity Afghanistan has had in a long time.

President Obama has for several weeks now been studying requests from General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, on what to do in Afghanistan, which includes a request for a substantial increase in the number of troops to be sent to Afghanistan. How important is this an issue in Afghanistan itself?

The issue of security is important in Afghanistan and the Afghans not surprisingly support steps that would increase security for them. On the issue of troops there is probably differences of opinion. I would say probably there is a general support for some increase in the number of American troops in some areas of Afghanistan, but the concern about security is clearly very paramount in the minds of many Afghans and security has deteriorated in recent years in parts of the country and casualties have gone up, of course including casualties for the coalition troops including Americans.

The Obama administration has continually talked about making sure al-Qaeda cannot return to Afghanistan, but the battle is between the United States and its Afghan allies against the Taliban, largely. Is there much difference between the Taliban and al-Qaeda?

The groups that are active in terms of violence against the government and the coalition are several. There is the Taliban of course, there is the Haqqani network, there is the HIK [Hizb-i-Islami Khalis], the Hizb-i-Islami group led by [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar and then there are some al-Qaeda elements that support some of these groups, have relations with them and there are others, including some criminal groups. Some of the violence can be traced to specific grievances that individuals or groups have inside Afghanistan. And as far as a distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, at some level there is obviously a difference between the two.

The strategic question is that if the Taliban were to come back to take over most of Afghanistan, what message that would send in terms of support for extremsim more broadly in the region and destabilization of the region and more specifically whether it would allow al-Qaeda to come back to Afghanistan and operate in Afghanistan. Prudence would require that we not rule out the likelihood that since the cooperation between the two is producing a better situation for them and a worse situation for us, that if we retreat and they were to succeed that they would not take steps that would be advantageous to us, by separating or working against each other, or for the Taliban not to allow al-Qaeda to come in.

It's interesting to see the disagreements in Washington over that question and particularly on the troop level. I'm curious--have you had a chance to give your views to President Obama directly?

"President Obama and Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton need to orchestrate a global initiative or approach to dealing with this issue of stabilizing the region of South-Central Asia."

No, I have not given it to him directly, I have talked to people who are advising him. In addition to the question of troops, two other issues are vital that need to be addressed. One we've talked a little bit about concerns [regarding] the government of Afghanistan. Will it be an effective government, will it be able to carry out what is necessary for the Afghans to do their part for success. Another element that is very important that is not discussed as much is the issue of relations with Pakistan. That concerns the issue of sanctuary for the Taliban, for the Haqqani network, for the HIK, and of course for al-Qaeda. Because as long as that sanctuary continues it will be more difficult, will take more time and more effort to defeat the insurgency. A challenge for American diplomacy is how to address the core issue of Afghan-Pakistan relations because as long as there is a territorial dispute between the two, for as long as Pakistan fears an alliance between India and Afghanistan, for as long as Pakistani elements have the desire to dominate Afghanistan, they would hedge or use these insurgencies to have a role in Afghanistan, and we have not been successful during the last eight years to address this issue appropriately.

Is the problem that no Pakistan government really can do anything about this because the Pakistani intelligence service supports the Taliban? Is Pakistan's national interest in keeping a foothold in Afghanistan?

Pakistanis fear a two-front war in India and Afghanistan, and therefore out of fear they would like to have either an Afghanistan that they dominate or an Afghanistan that's so unstable that it has to focus on itself. And we need to in terms of diplomacy--that must accompany the counterinsurgency approach--deal with that Pakistani fear at least in an agreement that makes the border issue less important than it is right now. We need to deal with both of these issues of fear and ambition that are important although in my judgment fear is probably more important than ambition at this time. And this is a challenge for American diplomacy. President Obama and Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton need to orchestrate a global initiative or approach to dealing with this issue of stabilizing the region of South-Central Asia.

Do you think it would be useful to have another loya jirga [constitutional convention] to kind of pull everybody together?

That's one of the options that's available to President Karzai and the Afghans. How do you manifest unity? One is for President Karzai to bring key competent people from different groups together, they're not that many of them in Afghanistan so the best and the brightest from different communities need to be brought together for this final push that is likely to take place for helping Afghanistan succeed and for Afghans to be a strong partner to deliver. The other is about the ability of a loya jirga. President Karzai has talked about convening some kind of loya jirga during his second term to deal with some of the issues of reconciliation and peace and security as well so that's an instrument that's available to the Afghans.

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