The U.S. can't ignore Karzai's tantrum

By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, April 11, 2010

Paging Dr. Khalilzad.

That is, Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and now a wandering consultant on all things Afghan and Middle Eastern. Might we impose on him one more time?

Khalilzad is not a physician, but to the extent that he has apparent healing powers, he is a doctor of diplomacy. He came to mind unavoidably in recent days, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai seemed to be sporting a lighted fuse from the top of his jaunty Persian lamb cap.

First Karzai accused the West and the United Nations of orchestrating the voter fraud with which his own followers have been charged. Next he blustered that if foreign occupiers didn't start showing a little more respect, well, he just might join the Taliban himself.

One is inclined initially to hope that this, like all tantrums, will pass as the mood changes or as other distractions prevail. Parental patience is indeed called for, but ancient wisdom may be more to the point. The sort of wisdom that perhaps only a fellow Afghan can bring to the dinner table of a man who is under siege, exhausted and obviously emotionally strained.

Whatever his flaws, Karzai has reason for his pique. Lately he has become a target of everyone from Barack Obama, who came out swinging even on the campaign trail, to European parliamentarians. Add to those strains external pressures from the Taliban and Iran, and you have a formula for meltdown.

It's deal-cutting time for Karzai, and with whom he deals may well depend on how the Obama administration treats him.

The consensus from Kabul is that Obama can treat Karzai firmly in private but with respect in public. This has not always been the case.

Karzai still stings, I'm told, from a formal dinner in 2008 when then-Sen. Joe Biden threw down his napkin, pushed back his chair and left the room. Relations with the Obama administration began badly when Karzai learned indirectly from a political rival whom the new U.S. ambassador would be, rather than from the secretary of state or sitting ambassador, as is customary. Perceived hostility from special envoy Richard Holbrooke has been a constant rub.

The corruption targeted by Obama, Holbrooke and others isn't in dispute. Voter fraud can't be tolerated. But Karzai's problems are systemic rather than personal. Whether Karzai deserves our respect is secondary to whether we need him to be effective as president of his country. Given the circumstances, wouldn't it be wiser to support Karzai rather than further cause him to feel impotent?

Obama's recent meeting, off the record and away from cameras, may have helped as a gesture of cooperation. But reports from inside Afghanistan via my own sources are that Karzai felt lectured to. We all know the feeling.

Enter Khalilzad, who was ambassador from 2003 to 2005, a relative Golden Age for U.S.-Karzai relations. What was different then was that Khalilzad kept the bad guys at bay and helped Karzai stay focused. Khalilzad told me that he and Karzai dined together six nights a week during his diplomatic tenure.

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