Biden's Afghan Journey

Joe Biden, then a senator and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, met with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, right, in Kabul in 2002.
Joe Biden, then a senator and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, met with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, right, in Kabul in 2002. (By Enric Marti -- Associated Press)
By Norman J. Kurz
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Four months after the Sept. 11 attacks, with the Taliban on the run from invading U.S. forces, then-Sen. Joe Biden was the first U.S. elected official to arrive in Kabul. Biden was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his first meeting, even before seeing President Hamid Karzai, was with Afghanistan's education minister.

Biden asked how the United States could help, certain that the reply would include funding requests to rebuild war-damaged schools and money for equipment, desks, even pencils. The minister surprised Biden by saying he needed just three things: security, security, security. Without it, he argued, parents wouldn't allow their children to walk the streets to go to school, nor would older students and teachers feel safe enough to drive the roads to attend college.

That this message came from an unlikely source made it all the more powerful. The security imperative guided Biden's thinking as well as that of the many critics of the Bush administration who insisted the United States had "taken our eye off the ball" by focusing on Iraq, giving al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden a chance to escape and providing the Taliban the respite it needed to reconstitute power. Unless security was enhanced, they argued, the vacuum created eventually would lead to a terrorist haven that would again threaten U.S. national security.

Year after year, Biden did what he could to buck up Karzai, to help extend his authority throughout Afghanistan so that Karzai would be more than the "president of Kabul." Biden openly fought with Bush officials who deemed Karzai's limited power sound policy and pushed back against a decentralized system in which regional and tribal leaders with questionable allegiances and corrupt practices exerted power over large swaths of territory.

When they met in January 2002, Karzai hosted Biden at the presidential palace for two days over long meals. After years of ruthless Taliban rule, the palace was a creaky shell of itself. Dozens of rich Afghan rugs failed to mask its faded grandeur; broken toilet seats and meager lunchtime offerings mirrored the shattered condition of a long-suffering nation. Like everyone else in the West, Biden saw Karzai as right for the job: uniquely without enemies, with a gentle, unifying touch; a Pashtun with congenial ties to Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and other ethnic groups; fluent in English. With his flowing robes and karacul cap, Karzai personified why Afghanistan was considered the "good war." The friendly Biden-Karzai relationship started then. Weeks later, when Karzai triumphantly arrived in Washington, lawmakers clamored for an opportunity to be near him. Biden served as his knowledgeable congressional guide.

Now, the vice president is the most forceful voice in the Obama administration for a lighter American footprint in Afghanistan. No longer does Biden advocate a massive U.S. undertaking to build schools and roads, wean farmers from growing poppies and create jobs. His backing of Karzai is a distant memory.

Yesterday's virtues are today's vices. Karzai, once the man no one opposed, is the weak leader unable to knock heads; a Pashtun by heritage but hardly a tribal leader able to inspire followers; a smooth-talking politician in league with a brother running part of the country's flourishing drug trade; a venal and power-hungry vote thief, subverting U.S. and NATO efforts to bring democracy to Afghanistan.

To the extent that having a strong, credible Afghan partner is necessary for successful counterinsurgency policy, it's easy to understand how Karzai has failed the test and lost the support of Biden and a growing number of skeptics.

How can the United States continue to invest large amounts of blood and treasure where we have no partner and when we have no faith in Karzai's ability to build up indigenous military capacity or even a functioning police force? It's hard to quibble with the logic that it is better to focus U.S. efforts on the narrower goal of killing enough Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan so that their ability to influence affairs in both countries is limited.

Biden and others worked for Karzai's success for nearly eight years and have gotten very little from their investment. But it's also fair to ask whether basing national security decisions on the shortcomings and failures of Hamid Karzai and his regime justifies leaving Afghanistan without having done the only thing the United States was asked to do so long ago: help establish security.

After all, it was Biden and the Bush critics who, upon returning from Kabul, said the first order of business was to supply U.S. troops in numbers sufficient to provide real security so that Afghanistan, emerging from its long nightmare, would never again serve as the headquarters of another American nightmare. If ever a nation-building exercise seemed worthy, this was it.

We will never know how Afghanistan might have developed had we devoted from the outset our full efforts to the "good war." But looking back, could it be that we've put the cart before the horse in seeking a powerful Afghan leader with whom to partner before committing ourselves to a serious effort to establish security? Doesn't leadership everywhere require security as part of the precondition to establishing authority? Didn't the minister of education have it exactly right?

The writer was communications director for Sen. Joe Biden and spokesman for Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee from 2000 to 2006.

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