A Reality Check for Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan

By Jackson Diehl
Sunday, May 10, 2009

After spending most of the past week in Washington, the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan can be excused if they leave town looking a little smug.

For weeks, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari watched as senior officials of the new Obama administration publicly critiqued their leadership and all but openly courted their domestic rivals. Yet once they arrived in Washington, the two leaders were showered with attention, sympathy and promises of support from an administration whose handling of the mounting trouble in what it calls "Afpak" has been as mercurial as it has been energetic.

"I'm pleased that these two men, elected leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat that we face and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it," President Obama declared at the White House in front of Zardari and Karzai, whom his aides had previously accused of abdicating to the Taliban (in the case of Zardari), or refusing to confront corruption (Karzai). Added Obama: "The United States has made a lasting commitment to defeat al-Qaeda but also to support the democratically elected sovereign governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. That commitment will not waver. And that support will be sustained."

The strong statement was an important signal for elites in both countries who may have begun to wonder if the United States was seeking to oust one or both leaders. It was also a needed corrective for a new American team that has been quick to understand and focus on the danger to vital U.S. interests in the two countries but slower to grasp the realities of what U.S. policy can accomplish, how quickly -- and through whom.

In Afghanistan, tensions between U.S. military commanders and Karzai were rising before Obama took office, partly because the Afghan president was seen as too accommodating toward ineffective or corrupt officials but also because Karzai insisted on publicly reproaching U.S. and NATO forces for causing civilian casualties.

The Obama administration's initial strategy was to work around Karzai by focusing on ministers and provincial governors considered pro-American. But U.S. officials also began encouraging several leading Afghan politicians or former officials to challenge Karzai in the presidential election scheduled for August. The hope was to give the incumbent a scare and show Afghans that their leader was not propped up by Washington.

The tactic failed. Karzai not only managed to persuade or intimidate his most serious rivals into staying out of the presidential race but also turned for support to a powerful former warlord, Mohammed Fahim, whom he named as his vice president. By the time he arrived in Washington, Karzai had a virtual lock on another five-year term. The administration was put further on the defensive when dozens of Afghan civilians died last Monday in what appeared to be another errant U.S. bombing raid.

Obama responded by opening his meeting with Karzai with an expression of sympathy and regret for the civilian casualties. He underlined the need for a free and fair election in August and pressed for a crackdown on corruption -- but also made clear that the administration understands the need to work with Karzai. "With President Karzai it was a very future-oriented conversation," said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton after her meeting with him. Said Karzai in a meeting with journalists: "That tension has gone. Reality has set in. That's a good thing."

Zardari was enjoying a similar recovery in his Washington stock. Thrust into the presidency after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated, the struggling president was publicly excoriated by administration officials after he agreed to a ceasefire with Taliban militants in the northwestern Swat region. Clinton declared at a congressional hearing that "the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban." American officials began focusing attention on Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who is Zardari's chief political rival.

This strategy soon raised difficult questions: Since Zardari's term extends until 2013, was Washington seeking to promote an unconstitutional solution -- perhaps another of Pakistan's serial military coups? Events in Pakistan meanwhile unfolded much as Zardari predicted they would in his private conversations with U.S. envoys. The Taliban refused to abide by the terms of the Swat agreement and instead began infiltrating neighboring districts. This caused a public backlash and provided the political foundation for the government to order a new military offensive against the militants, which began last week.

By the time Zardari met with Obama and Clinton, the administration's rhetoric about him had reversed. "I'm actually quite impressed by the actions that the Pakistani government is now taking," said Clinton.

The secretary of state went on to hint at the lesson the new administration might have learned in its first months. "I think if you are more understanding of both the history and the conditions, you can perhaps empathize a little bit but be smarter in the suggestions you make, understanding what the consequences will be." Those will be words worth remembering as what will surely be a long and perilous U.S. mission in the region goes forward.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company