With Karzai Favored to Win, U.S. Calibrates Criticism to Keep Options Open

Afghanistan's voters went to the polls on Aug. 20, 2009, for the nation's second presidential election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Two months later, Afghanistan's election commission ordered a runoff election for Nov. 7 after a fraud investigation invalidated nearly a million of President Hamid Karzai's votes.
By Joshua Partlow and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 14, 2009

KABUL -- The last time Hamid Karzai ran for president, in 2004, he was clearly America's man in Afghanistan. U.S. military helicopters shuttled him between campaign stops. At his inauguration, Vice President Richard B. Cheney was there to hail the day as a major moment "in the history of human freedom."

With a new round of voting one week away -- and Karzai favored to win another term -- a less-enamored Obama administration is looking for ways to lessen U.S. reliance on the Afghan president by working more closely with favored ministers and bolstering the authority of provincial and local leaders, according to American and Afghan officials.

The goals reflect frustration among U.S. officials over Karzai's performance in the past five years, particularly his seeming indifference to the widespread corruption within his government. But as it increasingly appears that Karzai will be its partner over the next five years, the United States has also sought to preserve a relationship with him.

"Because they couldn't construct a plan to replace Karzai, I think they toned down the criticism and kept the option open of working with Karzai, should he get reelected," said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. "I think some administration officials realized that by being so openly critical of Karzai, they faced the risk that they could get a Karzai who was not only reelected but was hostile to the U.S. because of how he had been treated."

The United States is "actively impartial" in the Aug. 20 vote, said Jane Marriott, a senior adviser to U.S. special representative Richard C. Holbrooke. But according to Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, U.S. officials back the idea of a new chief executive position under Karzai to add coherence and competence to his struggling bureaucracy.

"I know that in Washington this idea has strong supporters," Spanta said in an interview, adding that installing a "shadow prime-minister" would pose constitutional problems.

U.S. officials have discussed the proposal with a key Karzai challenger, the technocratic former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, though they have not endorsed him for the job.

Rather than "just pouring money into building the government," Holbrooke adviser Barnett R. Rubin said, the administration is focused on "rebuilding the relationship between subnational authorities and local communities." Rubin stressed that such activities were being undertaken in cooperation with the central government in Kabul.

Critical of some of Karzai's cabinet choices, the administration has praised the competence of presidentially appointed local leaders such as the governor of Helmand province, Gulab Mangal. Plans by the U.S. Defense and State departments call for installing American "mentors" and liaisons in Afghan ministries in Kabul, a policy that was heavily used during the early years of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq.

President Obama has called the Afghan election, the second since the Taliban regime's ouster in 2001, the most important event of the year in this country. Originally scheduled for April, the vote was postponed during what Holbrooke called a "crisis" period of Afghan constitutional and security upheaval. As a result, Holbrooke said, the Obama administration was forced to defer other priorities in Afghanistan and spend "most of the spring" sorting out the electoral crisis.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new U.S. military commander here, has postponed completion of his review of the security situation, originally due to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this weekend, in part because of the upcoming presidential and provincial council elections. "This is our main effort. I don't want anybody to think we're not anything but completely focused on this," McChrystal said.

"Until the election legitimizes the government, whoever wins, we have to focus on that," Holbrooke said. Holbrooke, Marriott and Rubin spoke at a media event in Washington on Wednesday.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company