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A softer approach to Karzai
New warmth from U.S. is acknowledgment that Afghan leader is needed as partner

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

When a team of senior U.S. officials led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the presidential palace in Kabul on Wednesday for a dinner meeting, they had little indication of what Afghan President Hamid Karzai planned to discuss, or whether questions about corruption and governance would pitch their host into a foul mood.

But instead of revisiting old disputes, Karzai brought in several cabinet ministers to talk about development and security. He explained details of a new effort to address graft. And halfway through a meal of lamb stew, chicken and rice, he looked across the table and said he had decided that the United States would be a "critical partner" in his second term, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the meeting.

The Americans also turned on the charm. Clinton, wearing an embroidered floral coat she had purchased on an earlier trip to Afghanistan, told stories of her time in Arkansas and in the Senate, and listened with interest as the Afghans detailed how they recently exported 12 tons of apples to India by air.

As President Obama nears a decision on how many more troops he will dispatch to Afghanistan, his top diplomats and generals are abandoning for now their get-tough tactics with Karzai and attempting to forge a far warmer relationship. They recognize that their initial strategy may have done more harm than good, fueling stress and anger in a beleaguered, conspiracy-minded leader whom the U.S. government needs as a partner.

"It's not sustainable to have a 'War of the Roses' relationship here, where . . . we basically throw things at each other," said another senior administration official, one of more than a dozen U.S. and Afghan government officials interviewed for this article. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal policy deliberations.

The new approach, which one official described as a "reset" of the relationship, will entail more engagement with members of Karzai's cabinet and provincial governors, officials said, because they have concluded that the Afghan president lacks the political clout in his highly decentralized nation to purge corrupt local warlords and power brokers. The CIA has sent a longtime field officer close to Karzai to be the new station chief in Kabul. And State Department envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, whose aggressive style has infuriated the Afghan leader at times, is devoting more attention to shaping policy in Washington and marshaling international support for reconstruction and development programs.

The tension in the relationship stems from the cumulative impact of several White House decisions that were intended to improve the quality of the Afghan government. When Obama became president, he discontinued his predecessor's practice of holding bimonthly videoconferences with Karzai. Obama granted wide latitude to the hard-charging Holbrooke to pressure Karzai to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that have fueled the Taliban's rise. The administration also indicated that it wanted many candidates to challenge Karzai in the August presidential election.

Although there is broad agreement among Obama's national security team that Karzai has been an ineffective leader, a growing number of top officials have begun to question in recent months whether those actions wound up goading him into doing exactly what the White House did not want: forging alliances with former warlords, letting drug traffickers out of prison and threatening to sack competent ministers. Those U.S. officials now think that Karzai, a tactically shrewd tribal chieftain who is under enormous stress as he seeks to placate and balance rival factions in his government, may operate best when he does not feel besieged.

Criticism of the Obama administration's manner of dealing with Karzai has been most pronounced among senior military officials, who question why the State Department has not dispatched more civilians to help the Afghan leader fix the government or worked more intensively with him to achieve U.S. goals.

"We've been treating Karzai like [Slobodan] Milosevic," a senior Pentagon official said, referring to the former Bosnian Serb leader whom Holbrooke pressured into accepting a peace treaty in the 1990s. "That's not a model that will work in Afghanistan."

Fueling tensions

Karzai's first indication that his relationship with the United States would undergo a profound shift occurred 10 days before Obama's inauguration. Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. had come to the palace for dinner, and halfway through the meal, he began taking his host to task for how he was responding to civilian casualties caused by U.S. and NATO military operations.

Biden told Karzai that he was politicizing the issue and leveling "ill-founded" allegations in public, according to a previously undisclosed account of the dinner from a person who attended. Karzai argued back, and the discussion turned tense. "Biden got a little bit passionate about it," the participant said. "Karzai was taken aback, and he got a little bit passionate, too."

Clinton further stoked tensions during her confirmation hearing three days later by calling Afghanistan a "narco-state" with a government "plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption." When Holbrooke was appointed Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan the following week, the diplomat made little secret of his desire to see others challenge Karzai in the election. In State Department meetings and Washington cocktail parties, he talked up Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official who speaks eloquently about the need to address corruption but has only a small political base in Afghanistan.

At the time, others in the administration were equally harsh in their assessment of Karzai. One senior official remarked that he had "plateaued as a leader," and the classified version of a White House review of Afghanistan strategy implied, according to two officials who read it, a lack of support for Karzai's reelection. Holbrooke and others openly discussed plans to send U.S. development assistance directly to provincial governors and cabinet ministers.

Back then, top administration officials thought that increasing pressure on Karzai would lead him to take meaningful steps to reduce corruption and improve governance. The officials also hoped to encourage potential rivals to run against Karzai by sending a clear signal that he was no longer Washington's man.

Neither assumption played out as planned. Karzai recoiled at the demands, his advisers said, in part because he resented being told what to do but also because he thought that Obama administration officials overestimated his control of the country. There also have been conflicting U.S. messages: While Biden and others pressed Karzai to remove his brother as the chairman of the provincial council in Kandahar because of allegations that he is connected to drug trafficking, the CIA continued to pay him for sharing intelligence and assisting with counterterrorism operations, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of intelligence operations in Afghanistan.

The U.S. approach to the election had the unintended consequence of strengthening Karzai's hand. "Nobody wanted to coalesce around a single candidate because they each thought they were America's favorite," said Ali Jalali, a former interior minister who briefly considered running.

Karzai was able to pull key opposition figures to his side by promising them positions in the new government. Fear that he no longer had U.S. support also prompted him to name Mohammed Fahim, a prominent former warlord alleged to have been involved in drug smuggling and corruption, as one of his vice presidential candidates.

"We created a political-diplomatic isometric exercise," said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. "The more we pressed him to remove people, the more he thought we were trying to undercut him, and we drove him back to the worst actors for support."

By the May 8 filing deadline, it was clear to many in Washington that Karzai would almost certainly win a second term. But there was no substantive effort to recalibrate the relationship. Although the administration maintained a neutral stance with regard to the election, Karzai saw it differently, according to his advisers.

"He was sure," one said, "that Washington wanted him to lose."

Disputed election

On Aug. 21, the day after Afghanistan's election, Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry visited Karzai in a wood-paneled room in his Kabul palace to discuss the election and how Karzai would govern if he won.

Although only a small fraction of the ballots had been counted, and widespread reports of fraud were reaching the capital, Karzai told the Americans he believed he had prevailed.

"The votes haven't been counted yet," Holbrooke told Karzai, according to a U.S. official familiar with the exchange.

Karzai brushed him off. "I've won," he said.

Holbrooke moved on to other subjects, but he soon returned to the election. He asked Karzai how he would react if he did not receive a majority of votes. But one Afghan official asserted to journalists that Holbrooke pushed Karzai to agree to a second round before all of the ballots were counted. Although Holbrooke and Eikenberry stayed until dinner was finished, the meeting ended in acrimony.

Karzai later sought to call Obama to complain. But White House aides, who deemed the Afghan leader's ploy inappropriate, said he was unavailable. Karzai then tried to reach Clinton. He received the same response.

Karzai was left seething, one of his advisers said.

"Looking back on it now, I believe it was a genuine misunderstanding," Holbrooke said.

By mid-October, when it became clear that the number of votes disqualified because of suspected fraud would push him below 50 percent, the administration scrambled for a way to get Karzai to agree to a second round. Holbrooke could not go because the relationship was still too raw, and Clinton said she wanted him in Washington to participate in Afghanistan strategy meetings. The administration pressed into service Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who was traveling in the region.

It took more than 20 hours of talks over four days, but Kerry persuaded Karzai to accede to the runoff. To critics of the forceful approach, the senator showed that patient diplomacy -- drinking copious cups of tea, flattering his ego and going for long walks in the palace garden -- could still get Karzai to bend.

"You have to show him respect and consideration," said Zalmay Khalilzad, a Bush administration envoy to Afghanistan who remains close to Karzai. "You cannot lecture him. You have to listen to his explanations, why he thinks something cannot be done, and then respond to that in a constructive way."

New expectations

Administration officials involved in shaping the strategy insist that it was not possible to recalibrate their approach to Karzai until the election and the ensuing disputes over ballot-box stuffing had concluded. This period "was a tremendous drain on the relationship," said the senior official familiar with Wednesday's meeting.

In the meantime, U.S. officials also have adjusted their expectations of what Karzai can accomplish.

"This top-down thing where you go to the palace and say, 'You've got to fix this, got to fix that. Please, Mr. President.' He agrees to do things almost every time and they don't get done. Then we think it's because he's being obstructionist," the senior official said. But we cannot "expect him to solve things which he can't solve."

Administration officials are also hopeful that the CIA's new station chief in Kabul will be an influential voice in encouraging Karzai to address U.S. concerns. The chief, who was most recently based in a Middle Eastern nation, led a team that supported Karzai's effort to work with tribal elders to reclaim control of his native Uruzgan province from the Taliban in November 2001, according to two people with knowledge of intelligence operations in the country. The sources said that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was in favor of sending the officer to Kabul. The CIA declined to comment.

Despite the changes, administration officials maintain that they are not going soft on Karzai. Clinton, they said, told the Afghan leader in a 90-minute private meeting after the dinner that future levels of development aid will be linked to improvements in governance, and she urged him to use merit, not cronyism, as a criteria for filling cabinet posts. She also indicated that the White House would seek to have the Afghan government meet as-yet-defined benchmarks of progress as a condition of U.S. security and development assistance.

"There's no diminution of concern," the senior official said. "But she did it within the context of a different tone."

In public comments after Karzai's inaugural speech, in which he pledged to address corruption by ordering government officials to disclose their assets and establishing a major-crimes tribunal, Clinton praised his specificity but noted that she wanted to see results. She said: "We're going to -- along with the people of Afghanistan -- watch very carefully as to how that's implemented."

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