Learning to work with our man in Afghanistan

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By Fareed Zakaria
Monday, April 12, 2010

President Obama keeps saying that he intends to win the war in Afghanistan. "There will be difficult days ahead, but I am absolutely confident that we will succeed," he promised in this year's State of the Union address. And yet his administration is undermining its own chances of success by constantly criticizing, weakening and undercutting America's only credible partner in the country, Hamid Karzai.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the Afghan president is ineffective and corrupt. Even if the allegations are true, there's an overriding reason to support him: There is no alternative. A foreign power can't hope to run a successful counterinsurgency campaign without a local ally who has at least a modicum of mass appeal. In Afghanistan, that means a major figure from the country's dominant ethnic group, the Pashtuns, and one who's willing to make common cause with the United States.

Karzai is the most popular, most credible politician who fits that description. Despite his many flaws, no one satisfies the criteria better than he does. And he's the country's elected president -- reelected in a process that was, after some controversy, endorsed by the United Nations and other international institutions. Although there was serious fraud in the balloting, few observers believe that his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, a member of the Tajik minority, would have won if the contest had been fairer. The only practicable method of replacing Karzai now is a military coup, which would be so destabilizing and discrediting that it isn't worth discussing.

So we can't replace him, and we can't succeed without him. Yet the Obama administration has criticized him publicly from the start. Two years ago, then-Sen. Joe Biden ostentatiously walked out of a dinner with him. This March national security adviser Jim Jones promised that Obama would give Karzai a talking-to. The media reported that Karzai's invitation to the White House for May 12 had been revoked, then reinstated -- and then press secretary Robert Gibbs said the White House was continuing to monitor Karzai's statements to see whether a White House visit would be "constructive."

Let's accept that Karzai is a vain, mercurial, hypersensitive man. And let's accept that he presides over a system that is massively corrupt. Does anyone really believe that his successor will be a brilliant manager and a Jeffersonian democrat of unimpeachable virtue?

This is Afghanistan we're talking about -- one of the five poorest countries in the world, destroyed by 30 years of war. It has a tribal culture and a literacy rate that's among the lowest on Earth. This climate would be challenging for anyone. And to be fair to Karzai, he's been making the right moves in the past few months on a number of issues, from civil-service and police reform to local governance and even corruption.

Compare Karzai, for a moment, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. When Maliki took his job in April 2006, he would talk partnership with the United States by day and cozy up to Shiite militias that were killing American soldiers by night. His finance minister, Bayan Jabr, has publicly admitted that death squads were operating from within the Interior Ministry when he headed it. Corruption in Iraq was measured in the billions of dollars, not the millions as in Afghanistan, and yet the United States understood that publicly picking fights with Maliki would only make America's job more difficult. Karzai, like Maliki, is better than many of the local leaders we have been obliged to ally with over the decades.

That's not to say America shouldn't be putting heavy pressure on Karzai in private. But the operative word here is "private." Voicing honest feelings might be good when you're a private citizen, but in government it is self-indulgent. Venting is not foreign policy.

A perceptive essay by Barnard professor Sheri Berman in the current issue of Foreign Affairs explains that the real challenge facing Afghanistan is state-building, not nation-building. History suggests the job will require a long, arduous process of centralizing political power and authority. In other words, the Kabul government will need to become stronger over time. Undermining Karzai won't help. The Obama administration needs to grow up, recognize that in the real world Karzai is the best partner it has and roll out the red carpet for him when he finally gets to the White House on May 12.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. His e-mail address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.


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