Administration Is Keeping Ally at Arm's Length
Skepticism of Afghan Leader Shapes Policy

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Afghan President Hamid Karzai began talking as soon as his luncheon guests had taken their seats in his wood-paneled dining room at the presidential palace in Kabul, across a long table covered with platters of lamb and rice, baskets of flatbread, and glasses of pomegranate juice.

Security was improving, he declared, according to two people in the room. The cultivation of opium-producing poppies had been eliminated in many areas. The economy was on the upswing. He looked across the table at the most important of his visitors and pledged to work closely with a new U.S. administration.

"I'm at your disposal, Senator Obama."

The Democratic presidential candidate listened intently but revealed few of his own views about Afghanistan over the two-hour lunch last July. It was not until later that day, as a U.S. government jet flew him to Kuwait, that Barack Obama confided in his two traveling companions, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

Obama voiced concern that the situation was worse than Karzai had acknowledged, Hagel recalled. He "was not taken in," Hagel said, "by all of the happy talk."

Today, as the two leaders meet in the White House, that skepticism drives the administration's evolving policy toward Afghanistan and the battle against Taliban insurgents, a conflict whose outcome will in part define Obama's presidency.

In assessing the nearly eight-year struggle from Washington, senior members of Obama's national security team say Karzai has not done enough to address the grave challenges facing his nation. They deem him to be a mercurial and vacillating chieftain who has tolerated corruption and failed to project his authority beyond the gates of Kabul.

"On all fronts," said a senior U.S. official, "Hamid Karzai has plateaued as a leader."

At the same time, the consensus view among State Department, Pentagon and CIA officials is that Karzai almost certainly will win reelection to another five-year term this August. Vexed by the challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan with a partner they regard as less than reliable, Obama's advisers have crafted a two-pronged strategy that amounts to a fundamental break from the avuncular way President George W. Bush dealt with the Afghan leader.

Obama intends to maintain an arm's-length relationship with Karzai in the hope that it will lead him to address issues of concern to the United States, according to senior U.S. government officials. The administration will also seek to bypass Karzai by working more closely with other members of his cabinet and by funneling more money to local governors.

'It's Going to Be Different'

For Karzai, an elegant and engaging politician renowned for his ability to forge compromises between warring factions, the new American coolness is unlikely to be a surprise. Ten days before Obama's inauguration, Karzai told Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. during a private meeting in Kabul that he looked forward to building with Obama the same sort of chummy relationship he had with Bush, which included frequent videoconferences and personal visits.

"Well, it's going to be different," Biden replied, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. "You'll probably talk to him or see him a couple of times a year. You're not going to be talking to him every week."

Obama advisers believe the relationship that Bush developed with Karzai masked the Afghan leader's flaws and made it difficult to demand accountability. Obama has not held a videoconference with Karzai, and the two have spoken by phone just twice. The administration rebuffed Karzai's request for a bilateral visit to Washington this spring, telling him he could come only as part of this week's tripartite summit with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, according to U.S. government officials. Karzai's meeting with Obama today is scheduled for 20 minutes, as is Zardari's.

The classified version of the recent White House review of Afghanistan strategy, according to two officials who have read it, criticizes Karzai. "It takes him to task for not meeting even the most basic Afghan expectations," one of the officials said. "The implication is clear: Karzai is not our man in this upcoming election." Like many of the two dozen current and former officials interviewed for this story, these sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the leaders candidly.

In a discussion at the Brookings Institution yesterday, Karzai acknowledged "bumps and ups and downs" in his relationship with the United States, but he insisted that "the fundamentals are strong and steady."

Karzai's aides contend that he alone is not to blame for Afghanistan's ills -- and Obama administration officials readily agree. Advisers to both leaders, as well as many diplomats who have served in Kabul, maintain that the U.S. approach to dealing with Afghanistan since 2001 -- a lack of troops and reconstruction dollars, periods of intense diplomatic engagement followed by stretches of inattention, and constantly shifting priorities -- whipsawed and weakened Karzai.

His defenders also point to decisions by the Bush administration not to send more forces to Afghanistan. As Taliban activity has increased in recent years, overwhelmed soldiers have increasingly resorted to calling in airstrikes, resulting in numerous civilian casualties. When complaints in private failed to diminish the use of air attacks, Karzai started to denounce the U.S. military in his speeches, prompting consternation in Washington.

"The Karzai that gives Washington such a headache today is, in large part, a product of how we dealt with him," said Robert Finn, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan during the first two years of Karzai's presidency. "We didn't give him the resources he needed -- be it money or troops."

Traits Now Seen as Flaws

The traits that made Karzai so appealing to the Bush administration are what the Obama administration now regards as his chief weaknesses.

Born in Afghanistan and educated in India, Karzai spent much of the 1980s living in exile in Pakistan. After the Soviets withdrew and their proxy government was toppled, he returned to serve as a deputy foreign minister, but he fled back to Pakistan after being falsely accused of plotting with the then-president's political rivals.

Once the Taliban came to power, he sought support from the United States and other nations to organize an anti-Taliban movement among his fellow ethnic Pashtuns, who make up about 40 percent of the country's population and who are heavily represented among the Taliban. Although he did not get the political and financial commitments he wanted, he did establish a reputation -- from Tehran to Moscow to Washington -- as a moderate Pashtun interested in the reconciliation of his diverse nation.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. After the Taliban was overthrown and Afghan leaders assembled in Bonn, Germany, to form an interim administration, the person who had the most support -- among not only Afghans but the international community -- was Karzai.

Karzai, who did not have a militia of his own, reached out to powerful warlords, pledging to include their representatives in his government. He sought to unite, not to hold them accountable for the violence of the rough-and-tumble years after the Soviets left.

"What are now considered his flaws are the obverse of what had been considered his assets," said James Dobbins, the Bush's administration first special envoy for Afghanistan. "We were drawn to him, in part, because . . . he was not the sort of person who would force issues or take positions that would antagonize factions."

When Karzai did seek to project his authority, he often faced opposition from the Bush administration -- not because it always wanted him to be a peacemaker, but because it didn't want to deploy the resources, particularly troops, to support him in the early years of his presidency.

The most significant U.S. act that weakened Karzai early on, according to his allies and diplomats, was the decision to funnel almost all of the U.S. reconstruction assistance to for-profit development contractors, nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations -- not through the Afghan government, which U.S. officials regarded as insufficiently capable of administering the aid. The result was that Karzai's government was starved of resources to pay its workers or provide services.

In February 2003, as the U.S. military was preparing to invade Iraq, Karzai took the unusual step of testifying before a Senate committee. He was asked if he had any advice for the United States. "Whatever you do in Iraq should not reduce your attention on Afghanistan," he said. By then, however, many U.S. military assets that had been in Afghanistan had been sent to Iraq.

Power Behind the President

In November 2003, as the U.S. engagement in Iraq was becoming more violent, the Bush administration dispatched Zalmay Khalilzad, its foremost expert on Afghanistan, as ambassador to Kabul. An animated former professor who speaks Dari and Pashto, the country's two principal languages, Khalilzad was far more than an ambassador. U.S. diplomats described his role as the country's chief executive -- with Karzai as the figurehead chairman -- for the 19 months of his ambassadorship.

By his own account, Khalilzad ate dinner six nights a week at the presidential palace, where he met with Karzai and his advisers into the evening. No significant decision was made by Karzai in that time without Khalilzad's involvement, and sometimes his cajoling and prodding, the diplomats said.

A vivid demonstration of Khalilzad's influence occurred in 2004, after a paroxysm of factional fighting in western Afghanistan involving Ismail Khan, a warlord who was the governor of Herat province. It was clear to Khalilzad that Khan needed to go, but Karzai was hesitant. So Khalilzad flew to Herat for discussions with Khan and announced that Khan would be moving to Kabul to become a cabinet minister. A few days later, Karzai issued an edict to that effect.

"Karzai was being his usual indecisive self, so Zal drove the steel rod up his spine," said a U.S. official.

That tactic, applied repeatedly, earned Khalilzad some detractors. "Khalilzad's approach fundamentally weakened Karzai," said a veteran Western diplomat. "Karzai was seen by many Afghans as a puppet of the Americans. It delegitimized him."

In June 2005, Khalilzad was made the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. He was replaced in Kabul by Ronald Neumann, a discreet, soft-spoken veteran diplomat assigned to normalize the relationship between Washington and Kabul. That meant no dinners at the palace every night or involvement in the minutiae of government.

The result, in the view of several diplomats and Afghan politicians who were there at the time, was that Karzai slid off the rails. He refused to remove incompetent subordinates, and he fired officials whom the U.S. Embassy regarded as effective. He named as his anti-corruption chief an Afghan American who was imprisoned in Nevada on drug charges for nearly four years.

Karzai's advisers said his U.S. critics did not fully understand his decisions, which were designed to avoid tribal and ethnic strife.

At times Karzai was prescient, such as when he publicly faulted the Pakistani government for not stemming the cross-border infiltration of Taliban fighters. But when he first articulated that complaint in 2005, he was told by the United States "basically to shut up," according to one U.S. official, because the Bush administration did not want to upset Pakistan's leader at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Mentoring an Ally

By late 2006, as concern grew in the White House over Karzai's leadership, Bush initiated biweekly videoconferences with Karzai, just as he was doing with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"It was a conversation. It was a dialogue. It was a lot of 'How are you doing? How is your son?' " according to a senior U.S. government official who attended some of the sessions. Karzai sometimes placed his infant son on his lap during the conversations. "President Bush felt very strongly that these two emerging leaders were so central to U.S. interests that he saw their coaching, their mentoring, as one of his central tasks," the official said.

But the familiarity came at a cost. In late 2007, Bush's National Security Council authorized aerial spraying of poppy fields because of concern that drug profits were financing the Taliban, according to that official and another senior Bush administration official. Bush was passionate about spraying. "I'm a spray man myself," he declared, according to one of the officials.

The plan, according to the officials, was to force the Karzai government to accede to spraying, and then use that acquiescence to overcome opposition from the U.S. military and the British government, whose troops were deployed in the areas of greatest poppy cultivation.

But when Karzai objected during a videoconference, saying the sight of spray planes would "look like chemical warfare" to the Afghan people, Bush backed down.

"He had come to the point where he related so closely to Karzai that he yielded to his instincts," the official said. "When it becomes personal, and it becomes more like partnership edging toward friendship, the personal dynamics are such that it's harder to put the heat on."

Obama's national security team learned of the frequency and content of Bush's videoconferences during the presidential transition.

"The president of the United States had become the case officer for Afghanistan," said a senior Obama foreign policy adviser. "It was a profound misjudgment of how to handle the situation."

A Tense Dinner Meeting

For Karzai, a dinner in February 2008 with Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and two other committee members -- Hagel and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) -- was a portent of what a Democratic administration would bring.

"Mr. President, how are you attempting to control the corruption in your government?" Hagel recalled asking Karzai.

"Who is corrupt?" Karzai responded, according to Hagel. "Show me. Give me the names."

Hagel mentioned that U.S. and Afghan officials had accused one of Karzai's brothers, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the provincial council in Kandahar, of links to narcotics trafficking. But Hagel couldn't cite specifics, and Karzai refused to budge.

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."

Challengers Sought

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."

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