Karzai is wild card for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's election commission has declared incumbent Hamid Karzai the winner of the country's presidential election, after his opponent pulled out. Visiting Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged U.N. Support. (2 November 2009)
By Scott Wilson and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

As the dust settles from Afghanistan's election, President Hamid Karzai's emergence as the victor by default cements the central dilemma facing President Obama as he decides whether to escalate the U.S. involvement in the war there.

The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan has proposed a strategy that would require an effective Afghan government to deliver services, support military operations and represent a viable political alternative to the Taliban insurgency. But Karzai's victory leaves in place a mercurial leader who has crossed administration officials in the past and whose record raises doubts about his willingness to take the steps necessary to reform his government.

During weeks of internal deliberations about how to proceed with an increasingly unpopular war, Obama and his senior advisers have waited for the Afghan electorate to determine who will be their next partner in Kabul, even deciding to delay any strategy announcement until after the Nov. 7 runoff vote. Karzai won reelection Monday without a second round after the withdrawal of his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who left the race citing the risk of fraud.

But the decision by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to declare Karzai president deprives him of a genuine win at the polls and potentially undermines the Obama administration's goal of building a legitimate government in Kabul, the key to any strategy that emerges from the White House review.

On Monday, Obama called Karzai to congratulate him. "Although the process was messy, I'm pleased to say that the final outcome was determined in accordance with Afghan law," he told reporters at the White House. "But," Obama added, "I emphasized that this has to be a point in time in which we begin to write a new chapter based on improved governance, a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption, joint efforts to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces so that the Afghan people can provide for their own security."

The proposal of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, includes a request for about 44,000 additional U.S. troops to better protect Afghan population centers from the Taliban.

In his stark 66-page assessment of the war, he wrote that the "center of gravity" of the 100,000 international troops under his command "is the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population 'by, with, and through' the Afghan government."

"A foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the insurgency in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution," McChrystal wrote. "This is their war and, in the end, ISAF's competency will prove less decisive than GIRoA's." The acronyms stand for the International Security Assistance Force he commands and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

The White House is evaluating whether to adopt McChrystal's broad counterinsurgency strategy or a more narrow counterterrorism campaign focused on defeating al-Qaeda, whose leaders and foot soldiers operate in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A different U.S. president

Since the flawed Aug. 20 vote, the legitimacy of the Afghan government and Karzai's erratic role leading it has played a central part in the discussions, which are expected to continue in coming days when Obama meets for a second time with his Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Obama's senior civilian advisers, including Vice President Biden, are skeptical that Karzai is serious about fighting corruption in his administration or improving the central government's performance sufficiently to win broad support from the Afghan public.

Biden and other administration officials backing the narrower counterterrorism effort have used Karzai's weakness to argue that Obama should not send additional combat forces to Afghanistan. Their plan would maintain the current troop level in the near term, step up the training of Afghan troops, support Pakistan's government in its fight against the Taliban, and attack al-Qaeda operatives in both countries.

Karzai, an elegant and engaging politician who once charmed Washington with his furry hat and cape, grew accustomed to the chummy interactions he had with President George W. Bush during frequent videoconferences and personal visits.

But 10 days before Obama's inauguration, Biden made it clear to Karzai that his interactions with the new president would be very different, telling him he would probably talk to him only "a couple of times a year."

Biden and other Obama advisers believe the relationship that Bush developed with Karzai masked the Afghan leader's flaws and made it difficult to demand accountability. They viewed Karzai as a vacillating leader, and planned to keep him at arm's length until he demonstrated better leadership and addressed the high-level corruption within his government.

Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, also made little secret in diplomatic circles of his desire to see other candidates emerge to challenge Karzai, which stoked anger in Kabul's presidential palace.

At dinner the day after the Aug. 20 vote, Karzai was exulting in the victory he claimed from early poll results. But Holbrooke refused to endorse Karzai's claim and, presidential aides said, spoke harshly to Karzai and said he believed a runoff would be necessary.

The evening started their relationship on a downward path from which it has not recovered. Holbrooke has not been back since, although he said he expects to visit Kabul within the next few weeks.

Ensuring legitimacy

Senior administration officials were encouraged last month when Karzai agreed to a second round of voting, which he was widely expected to win, letting him continue as the only president Afghanistan has had since the 2001 U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban government. Administration officials said his agreement was important to ensuring the legitimacy of the election process.

But whether Karzai's victory without a final vote undermines his legitimacy will be decided ultimately by the Afghans themselves. The Karzai administration is already seen in Afghanistan as corrupt, and Obama administration officials have sought to identify local leaders who might serve as more effective partners than the central government.

A senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the administration will pursue a "two-pronged" approach to improving the quality of government.

Karzai, the official said, will be urged to embrace a "compact with the Afghan people" that would make explicit commitments about local governance, corruption and other important issues. The official said senior members of Obama's national security team are weighing whether to tie the deployment of some additional troops and development resources to Karzai's progress on the compact.

At the same time, the official said, the U.S. government would seek to bypass Karzai by working more closely with members of his cabinet and by funneling more money to local governors. Karzai has the power to appoint and fire provincial governors, and administration officials worry that he will use the authority to remove local officials deemed effective by the United States to reward campaign supporters.

"Will he, for instance, fire the governor of Helmand and replace him with one of his cronies?" the official said. "How can we urge him from doing that? Those are the questions that will be getting more attention now."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Marrakesh, Morocco, contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company