Publicly Criticizing the Afghan President Hurts the U.S.

Just four days after President Obama’s surprise visit to Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave a major speech complaining that heavy-handed international actions tarnished last year’s presidential election, diminished his legitimate status as clear winner and risked making the foreign military presence resemble the imperialist invaders of yesteryear.

Karzai went too far. His comments were unfair and risked encouraging critics of the Afghanistan mission who want to portray foreign forces as unwelcome. But his remarks were also a predictable result of American browbeating. Historically, negative treatment of the Afghan leader has produced these sorts of reactions. Kabul and Washington are partners in the effort to create a stable, democratic state; they should understand that public displays of rancor are best avoided.

The immediate catalyst for Karzai’s outburst appears to have been comments by Obama’s national security adviser. En route to Kabul, Gen. Jim Jones predicted to journalists on the record that Obama would pressure Karzai about corruption in governance and said that Karzai had made no progress on this front since his Nov. 19 inauguration.

Jones’s concerns were not without foundation. Even as the latest wave of U.S. troops began arriving en masse, and NATO forces, with limited Afghan help, were clearing towns such as Marja in Helmand province and preparing for a major operation in Kandahar city, the ruling elites in Kabul allegedly refused to clean up their self-serving approach to governance. Allegations of malfeasance have been reinforced by concerns about the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a major power broker in Kandahar. His system of patronage and favoritism has been a concern for allied forces, who see it as angering local tribes that are on the outs — and thereby helping the Taliban’s efforts to recruit followers.

In the past year, Vice President Biden and other U.S. officials have strongly criticized the Afghan leader in public. But whatever one thinks of Afghan governance, and it’s true that it’s not improving fast enough, Jones’s remarks were flawed and self-defeating.

First, Karzai was largely a U.S. pick. Through the Bonn process that followed the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001, this country led an international effort to make him Afghanistan’s leader. His “big tent” approach to governance was seen as the most practical way to engender support from tribal leaders, warlords and other power brokers as the United States sought to maintain a light footprint in Afghanistan and avoided building up a strong central state. Circumstances have changed since 2001, but Karzai remains largely the same man. Moreover, some aspects of his strategy of inclusiveness resemble the American desire for reconciliation with elements of the Afghan insurgency. We have grounds to debate and criticize Karzai on many issues, but such conversations need to happen with an attitude of respect, an appreciation of nuance, and an awareness that 80 percent of Afghans still like him as their leader.

Second, Jones was wrong that no notable progress has been made against corruption since November. The pace of progress remains too slow, but Karzai began his second term as president by keeping in office many of his best ministers and governors. Helmand province Gov. Gulab Mangal, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, for example, have accomplished a good deal for their country. The Major Crimes Task Force designed to pursue cases of high-level corruption is gaining strength. And the number of trained Afghan army and police forces accompanying NATO troops into Marja, while still modest, was double the number of locally available forces accompanying U.S. Marines on similar operations in Helmand last year.

Discussions continue about how to dilute Ahmed Karzai’s influence in Kandahar. But delays reflect disagreement among NATO governments about how to proceed, not just nepotistic interference from Kabul.

Third, browbeating Karzai, especially in public, does not work. A more respectful approach has proved effective. While keeping much of his counsel private, Sen. John Kerry was direct in meetings with Karzai last fall. Kerry persuaded Karzai to accept a second round of voting to determine the presidency, and though that second round was not implemented, Karzai’s willingness to approve it did much to shore up his legitimacy at home and abroad. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s discreet approach to Karzai and his cabinet has generated cooperation with key ministers on reform of Afghan security forces. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presence at Karzai’s second inauguration is part of a State Department effort to make diplomacy and development more effective, in part by reaching out to regional and local Afghan leaders in key places. Perhaps the professional rapport he seems to have with Clinton is an indication that Karzai responds to such efforts.

A transcript of the Obama-Karzai meeting was not released. Our guess is that it had a more balanced tone than much of the trip’s public remarks. To be fair, Jones may have underestimated how his comments could reinforce negative perceptions in Afghanistan and the United States and set the stage for another period of acrimony. But we are fighting a war. Our leaders need to stop relearning lessons about U.S.-Afghan diplomacy every few months. There is no time to waste.