Page 4 of 4   <      

As U.S. assesses Afghan war, Karzai a question mark

Continued photo coverage from the front lines of the military effort in Afghanistan.

"It's a win-win strategy for Matiullah and Karzai," one Western official in southern Afghanistan said. "The president gets to say he's disbanded private security firms, and the warlord, who is his ally, gets richer."

But other than the Matiullah case, U.S. officials could not identify a systematic effort to consolidate business around the president' relatives and allies. The principal motivation seemed to be his deep-seated belief that the billions in reconstruction spending was hurting more than helping.

"We know some projects may be delayed. We know some projects may close down," Daudzai said. "But it's worth it because the other side [retaining private security contractors] is even more dangerous."

No 'stooge'

The standoff was the moment for high-level American diplomacy, but the two men with principal responsibility for civilian engagement with Karzai, Eikenberry and special envoy Richard Holbrooke, have, at best, a fractured relationship with him - and each other. Neither was able to persuade Karzai to relent in their initial discussions with him.

State Department officials sympathetic to Holbrooke accused Eikenberry and his staff of not grasping the issue quickly enough. Embassy officials, in turn, questioned why Holbrooke was not doing more to help.

"The biggest problem in our relationship with Karzai is that we don't have any diplomats who actually have a relationship with him," said a U.S. military official in Kabul.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton eventually was forced to weigh in. Several U.S. officials credit her follow-up intervention with softening his stance.

Karzai finally relented by easing the ban to exempt development firms, but not before the crisis dominated the agenda at the U.S. Embassy and the USAID mission for weeks, pushing aside other business. USAID was forced to work up elaborate contingency plans, an effort one staffer said consumed "thousands of person-hours."

As soon as a compromise was brokered, Karzai lit another fire by saying that the United States should "reduce military operations" and end Special Operations raids, despite indications that U.S. forces have made headway against the Taliban in recent months. Those remarks drew a heated response from Petraeus and once again prompted questions in Kabul and Washington about Karzai's willingness to fix his country.

Asked whether he considers himself a partner with the United States, Karzai said "it depends on how you define a partner in America."

"I will speak for Afghanistan, and I will speak for the Afghan interest, but I will seek that Afghan interest in connection with and together with an American interest and in partnership with America," he said. "In other words, if you're looking for a stooge and calling a stooge a partner, no. If you're looking for a partner, yes."

<             4

© 2010 The Washington Post Company