A Need to Shift U.S. Ambitions in Kabul

Rather than voicing its impatience, the U.S. should see Afghan President Karzai’s outbursts over the past few weeks as symptomatic of domestic political pressures, says CFR President Richard N. Haass, and should consider limiting its ambitions in Afghanistan as well as deemphasizing the importance of a presidency that is likely to remain weak for some time.

April 9, 2010 10:53 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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The past few weeks have been stormy ones for the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai accused the United States and other allies of fraud during last year’s presidential contest, embraced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before a visit to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama, and has threatened to join the Taliban if foreign pressure continues. Richard N. Haass, a former chief of policy planning in the State Department, says while Karzai is "corrupt," the United States has exacerbated problems by airing its frustrations so forcefully. He adds that the United States should be more mindful of the intense domestic political pressures Karzai faces, ramp down its ambitions in the country, and channel efforts through the Afghan defense ministry and other parties rather than solely through Karzai, a weak president who is likely to remain so.

President Obama flew to Kabul for an overnight visit with Karzai recently, to pressure him to end corruption. Karzai responded angrily after the visit, saying foreigners were responsible for Afghanistan’s problems. How bad is the situation between the two allies?

The situation is bad in large part because at the core of United States policy and strategy vis-à-vis Afghanistan is the notion that we are going to temporarily build up to provide time and space for an Afghan partner to emerge--in the military sense, in the policing sense, in the governing sense, and in the economic sense. If this does not occur, our policy makes no sense, because the United States is not talking about staying there forever. The problem is that we clearly have a flawed partner in Mr. Karzai and his government, and it’s not at all clear that the situation’s improving. To the contrary, it seems to be deteriorating. So from the United States’ point of view, it raises a fundamental problem, which in many ways is the Achilles heel of U.S. policy in Afghanistan: How do you keep the situation good enough with a level of U.S. ongoing support and assistance that is sustainable. Right now it’s not at all obvious we have the answer to that challenge.

This raises problems domestically for President Obama’s policy, because those opposed to being in Afghanistan say Karzai’s corrupt, so "let’s get out," and the conservatives--as in the Wall Street Journal the other day--blamed Obama for making this a fiasco by publicly criticizing Karzai.

Whether they are countries in Latin America, or Asia--most obviously Vietnam--or in the Middle East, what we’ve learned is anytime you have this kind of inequality, it tends to breed frustrations and resentment.

These are two separate issues. The stakes are big for the president of the United States. This is in many ways the most consequential national security decision this president has made during his tenure. U.S. troops are well on their way to reaching one hundred thousand, and this has become Barack Obama’s war of choice. He decided to build up U.S. efforts and to expand U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. He has judged there to be extraordinarily important U.S. interests in Afghanistan where some people, including myself, don’t see them. So this is very much a discretionary foreign policy undertaking, which only raises the political stakes. Because if it doesn’t turn out well, there will be a lot of people who will obviously ask the question, "Why did you do this, something that was not essential for the United States to do?"

You raised a second question, which is whether the problem is inherent in Karzai or whether the problem is a reflection of U.S. handling of Karzai. That’s a big question, and the short answer is both. Karzai himself is flawed. He’s corrupt and all the rest. It’s also a reflection of Afghanistan. This is a country with a history of weak kings--in this case, a weak president. It’s a country in which the center, Kabul, has always had difficulty asserting itself over the periphery.

I also think this is yet another example--which we’ve seen time and again over the last half century--of the tension between the stronger United States and a weaker country that was something of a client or a project of ours. Whether they are countries in Latin America, or Asia--most obviously Vietnam--or in the Middle East, what we’ve learned is that anytime you have this kind of inequality, it tends to breed frustrations and resentment. And on top of it, the administration has made a bad situation worse by voicing all its frustration, so Karzai’s natural reaction is to push back. He has to burnish his nationalist credentials; he also wants to burnish his Pashtun credentials and show he’s not simply a puppet of the United States. And he’s probably also thinking to himself: "I need to do this to strengthen my base at home and the Americans need me, at least as much, if not more than I need them." So what we’re seeing now is all the friction coming to the surface.

To show his independence, Karzai invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul and he went to China to show, I suppose, he has other friends.

Sure. All relationships of this sort have an element of bargaining in them, and it’s who needs who more. Just because we’re more capable, just because we’re pouring so much into Afghanistan doesn’t mean all the leverage is ours. The fact that Afghanistan has been determined to be as important as it is by this administration gives Mr. Karzai and many of his fellow Afghans considerable leverage over us.

Normally, when there are differences with a friendly country, the U.S. president doesn’t make a visit and let the press know it was to "chew the other leader out," as happened during Obama’s trip to Kabul. That was unusual, wasn’t it?

The short answer is yes, and these are obviously tactical calls. I don’t necessarily assume that people in the administration saw the trip as one of going over there to "chew him out." My hunch is that the trip was a way of associating the president with the troops and with the policy. It was probably meant as a way of publicly showing a degree of support for the Afghan government. It didn’t quite work out that way. It’s always hard to know also what the expectations were. It may have been that the administration believed that if Obama went over they could get a little more progress than they did, but it’s important to keep in mind we’ve got a seriously flawed partner in Kabul. By the way, our ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, last year pointed out in his now famous cable (BBC) to Washington that if our Afghan partner weren’t so flawed, we wouldn’t have to be doing half the things we find ourselves doing.

After all this shouting, the head and the deputy head (BBC) of the Afghan Election Commission, which was regarded as very corrupt, have "resigned." Was that a gesture to the United States?

We’ll know how much of a gesture it was when we see who replaces them, and more importantly what behavior they engage in down the road. Let me just give you a prediction: The best we’re going to see is still going to be disappointing. This is a government that will continue to be involved, one way or another, directly or indirectly, in the drug trade; there’s going to be corruption, there’s going to be massive incompetence. So we shouldn’t expect that there’s going to be any dramatic change or improvement in the central government in Afghanistan anytime soon. Certainly not before July 2011, when the president wants to begin his draw-down of the American military presence.

In Afghanistan, the other side is not some democratic group. When the Taliban was in power, it was really pretty awful for the people there.

It was extraordinarily awful, which is one reason the Taliban is as unpopular as it is for many Afghans. But when someone like Karzai says if things get bad enough he might join them, I think what he’s trying to do, or what he’s trying to reflect, is the fact that the Taliban is closely associated with Pashtun nationalism. And that’s the reality we forget at our peril. Karzai is a Pashtun; the country has a plurality of Pashtuns; and at times there’s a thin line between Talibanism and Pashtunism. And it’s very hard for the United States to have a policy that walks that fine line.

You mentioned past efforts and problems when countries have become "client states," particularly Vietnam. In Vietnam, President John F. Kennedy was quite aware that generals were planning a coup to get rid of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his adviser and brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Historians say he was shocked that Diem and his brother were both murdered, but after that, there never really was a strong government in Vietnam.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves. As flawed as Karzai is, to some extent his flaws are reflective of Afghanistan’s flaws, and by that I mean you are not going to get a super-competent, super-clean, popular figure who can assert control nationally.

In this case, we have to be careful what we wish for--and not simply because of the historical echoes. If tomorrow, regardless of whether the United States did or said anything more than it has already done, Karzai were to disappear from the political scene and to be replaced, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan would increase, not decrease. So one way or another, we would be seen by many as having engineered the change. Therefore, it’s the variant of the "Pottery Barn rule" that t"if you break it, you own it" [attributed to then Secretary of State Colin Powell, warning President Bush about invading Iraq in 2003]. Not so much "if you break it," but in this case, "if you make it happen, or seem to make it happen, you own it."

We shouldn’t kid ourselves. As flawed as Karzai is, to some extent his flaws are reflective of Afghanistan’s flaws, and by that I mean you are not going to get a super-competent, super-clean, popular figure who can assert control nationally. That is highly unlikely, given the chemistry of the country. And I think it’s an important truth because it suggests then what we need to do. The thrust of U.S. policy, I would think, should not be to get Karzai to fundamentally change his stripes, or to get a successor to Karzai to be fundamentally different, but rather, to design a policy that’s different in two ways from current U.S. policy.

And these are?

The first is to channel much more of our effort around and not through the presidency. We should channel more things through the minister of defense, or the person responsible for policing, or this or that regional person--to find alternative partners rather than a single, central one. And secondly, to rethink the degree of ambition of U.S. policy. We should raise a cautionary flag about the dangers of getting ambitious in a country such as Afghanistan. Our ability to make lasting improvements that are commensurate with our investment is a reach. It’s not at all obvious that we can do that. To borrow a phrase that General David Petraeus used to use in Iraq, "When is Afghanistan good enough?" What is it we really need to achieve there? Maybe this is a time to think about how we dial down some of our ambitions there.

President Karzai spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations in recent years, so you’ve actually met him right?

I’ve met him many times, both here at the Council, and also in Afghanistan.

Is he very temperamental? What did you find?

He’s charismatic. He’s somewhat temperamental; he’s erratic. The last time I saw him in Kabul, he was suffering a little bit from what you might call "Palace Syndrome." There was a sense of a man besieged, isolated, slightly incurious. It wasn’t a totally reassuring picture, to say the least.

But let me add one thing. I have not seen any substantiation of charges that somehow he’s acting the way he is on drugs. I would simply say that a more likely analysis, rather than an ad hominem one, is that he is not the strongest of political figures, who’s caught between an anxious and at-times unhappy base inside his country, and trying to work with and satisfy an at-times demanding partner, the United States. And my sense is, the pressure that is inherent in this situation at times, the contradictions he must feel between what he needs to do to stay viable at home and win support abroad, are enormous. This erratic behavior could well be not simply an attempt to appeal to two very different constituencies, but also a reflection of the extraordinary pressure that this individual is working in.

Again, it leads me to think that U.S. policy should seek not necessarily to increase the pressure on him, but to work around him, and conceivably even to look for ways, if possible, to reassure him. In short, to basically say, "OK, what would it take to make this situation less bad than it is?"

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