Our man in Kabul

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

HAMID KARZAI said a lot of the right words on Tuesday after his mandate for another term as Afghanistan's president was confirmed. He said he would form an inclusive administration, that he would welcome members of the Taliban who are ready to work with the government, and that he would "use all our forces, by any means, to remove this stain" of corruption. As President Obama pointedly noted in recognizing Mr. Karzai's reelection a day earlier, "the proof is not going to be in words. It's going to be in deeds." True enough -- but it's also the case that the direction of Mr. Karzai's deeds is going to depend to a large degree on whether he believes he can depend on the United States, its forces and especially its president to back him up.

So far, the Afghan leader has frequently gotten the opposite message from the Obama administration. Senior envoys such as Vice President Biden have quarreled with him in private, even as Mr. Obama has held Karzai at arm's length in public. This might have made some sense if there were an alternative to Mr. Karzai. But there is none. Even after fraudulent votes were subtracted, Mr. Karzai was far ahead of his leading opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, in the first round of the presidential race.

The administraton is contemptuous of the corruption that plagues Mr. Karzai's government, and military commanders fume over his complaints about civilian casualties. Yet as the U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has implicitly recognized, Mr. Karzai had a point; Gen. McChrystal has ordered steps to reduce civilian deaths as a result of military operations. Though his government has never been clean, Mr. Karzai renewed his alliance with several warlords in recent months after the administration distanced itself from him.

He's now being urged by Washington and its NATO allies to arrest some of those cronies, appoint a commission to weed out corrupt officials or forge a new coalition of technocrats. Such steps are badly needed -- though it's worth noting that Mr. Karzai's cabinet already includes several competent ministers who work closely with the United States. U.S. officials are also right to build alliances with provincial governors and foster local governments that can deliver services.

In the end, however, the Obama administration needs to forge a productive relationship with Mr. Karzai -- just as the Bush administration found a way to work with Iraq's problematic leaders in 2007. Private tongue-lashings may help; those that are leaked or conducted in public do not. U.S. troops and aid can provide leverage, provided that Mr. Karzai has some assurance that the United States will not abandon him to the Taliban. With President Obama still considering whether to provide the reinforcements his commanders say are necessary to turn the tide of the war, Mr. Karzai can't be blamed for lacking that confidence.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company