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Skeptical Administration Keeping Karzai at Arm's Length
When the conversation moved to poppy cultivation, Karzai insisted that his government was making good progress.
"Mr. President, you're not doing very well," Biden responded, according to Hagel. "Your poppy production is at record levels."
On other subjects, according to Hagel and two others in the room, the discussion seesawed in the same way, with Biden disputing Karzai's claims of progress.
The back-and-forth circled back to corruption, and when Karzai again refused to acknowledge any problem, Biden stood up and threw his napkin on the table.
"This dinner is over," he said, according to Hagel and the others in the room.
Although senior Obama administration officials believe that Karzai needs to remove his brother from his post in Kandahar, they have been unable force his hand. Last year, then-national security adviser Stephen Hadley asked then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden to find evidence of Ahmed Wali Karzai's alleged corruption, according to a former senior Bush administration official. Hayden eventually told Hadley, according to the official, "There are allegations all over the place, but in terms of hard evidence, we don't have it."
When Obama saw President Karzai last summer, however, the Afghan leader had eased his line on corruption.
"He didn't deny it," said Hagel, who was at the meeting. "He acknowledged they had a problem and that it was serious."
By then Obama was already hedging his bets. A few days earlier, he told an interviewer that "the Karzai government has not gotten out of the bunker and helped organize Afghanistan and its government -- the judiciary, police forces -- in ways that would give people confidence."
Although the administration says it will make no endorsement in the elections, Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, has made little secret in diplomatic circles of his desire to see candidates challenge the incumbent.
Chief among them is former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, who has a doctorate from Columbia University and has worked at the World Bank. But Ghani and others do not appear to have the support needed to trump Karzai, who has installed governors and sub-governors who can help his get-out-the-vote efforts. There have been reports that former ambassador Khalilzad, who remains active in Afghan politics, is pondering a run for the presidency, but he has denied any such intention.
Given the likelihood of a Karzai victory, the administration is seeking to increase its engagement with local and tribal leaders -- not to persuade them to forsake Karzai but to get them to be more effective administrators. Administration officials hope that improvements in local government, coupled with improvements in security, will persuade Afghans to stop supporting the Taliban.
But cultivating disparate local leaders could be just as challenging as dealing with Karzai.
"Because we've been so enamored with Kabul, we don't really to this day understand the tribal structure well enough to use it as a base of our strategy," said a senior administration official. "The chances of our engaging tribes clumsily and dysfunctionally, rewarding the power tribe that oppresses all the other tribes, and forcing the peripheral tribes into the hands of the Taliban -- that's the kind of stuff we're probably doing right now and we don't even know it.
"But we don't have a choice," the official said. "We have to build a bottom-up dynamic to counterbalance Karzai. And that's a whole lot harder than working with one guy at the top."