Reading Karzai in Kabul

What to make of Afghan President Hamid Karzai — our putative ally in the mission to stabilize and strengthen the country over which he rules?

Certainly U.S. policymakers and citizens can be forgiven for wondering why Washington should be spending more than $100 billion annually, and losing several hundred soldiers a year, to defend a country whose own president barely treats us in civil fashion.

In but the latest example, Karzai suggested Saturday that foreign troops — the U.S. provides more than two-thirds of the total — were somehow polluting his country. Literally.

On previous occasions, Karzai has threatened to join the Taliban insurgency himself; or demanded that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization cease its lethal night raids, or questioned the motives of the 48 foreign countries now risking their soldiers’ lives for Afghanistan’s stability.

These sorts of outbursts; plus Karzai’s dubious performance in the 2009 presidential race, where the results were questioned; plus the corruption in which so many of his cronies are implicated, have led influential Americans to make strong criticisms, both in public and in private. Wikileaks revealed that Karzai is described as a “manic depressive” by at least one official.

Even before that, leaked diplomatic communications revealed U.S. officials’ speculations that Karzai might be taking drugs, or be a better friend of Iran than the United States.

This poisonous relationship on both sides calls into question whether we really have an alliance capable of winning a war—or even struggling together to a tolerable stalemate against the insurgency.

But many of these tough critiques of Karzai are unfair. Granted, I do not know him well – we have met only a couple times. Most of my information here is based on conversations with several individuals who do know him well, in addition to my assessment, from a distance, of his behavior over the years.

But without defending his every move, which would be foolish on my part, I suggest that there are better ways to understand Karzai than have become common in the U.S. debate over the last two to three years. This is crucial, since President Barack Obama is now preparing to decide how fast to draw down U.S. troops, starting next month. The president’s choice seems to be whether to stick with the current civil-military strategy we are pursuing in Afghanistan, even in the aftermath of all the above bad news as well as the good news of Osama bin Laden’s death.

The best starting point for deciphering Karzai may be thinking of him as akin to an anti-war American—and there certainly are plenty of the latter a decade into this frustrating and tragic war. Just like many on the U.S. left, right and center who wonder if the current strategy to stabilize Afghanistan can work, Karzai has his doubts at this point. Like them, Karzai is sick of the death and mayhem, and often gets emotional about the conflict.

Of course there are differences. Anti-war Americans can suggest that we cut our losses and bring our troops home. Karzai can do no such thing. Perhaps he could personally escape to Dubai. But his country cannot escape its problems so easily just by cutting the cord to the international community and the counterinsurgency strategy that we are now collectively pursuing.

More than most Americans, but perhaps not more than most Afghans or Pakistanis, Karzai is also prone to conspiracy theories. Why, he wonders, can the greatest military force ever created, working in tandem with forces from 47 other nations and his own, not defeat perhaps 30,000 bearded insurgents wearing plastic flip-flops and holing up in the mountains?

How can a country that could sweep aside the Taliban without breaking a sweat need 10 years to bring peace to his country? Why do so many NATO targeting mistakes still occur, leading to the deaths of many innocent Afghan civilians? Why do many of his favorite U.S. officials in Afghanistan seem to be recalled early, while Washington officials publicly chew him out over a corruption problem they did much to create? And why do Americans embarrass him about irregularities in the 2009 presidential election, when it is clear by all polls that he would have easily won even if there was no cheating?

This is Karzai’s worldview, I am convinced. It is, in many ways incorrect. But the logic behind his conclusions is rarely crazy. If one remembers that he is a politician, not a military strategist, the result is not even particularly surprising.

So what do we do? First, tone it down —on both sides, of course. Rather than get into wars of words, we need to accept the reasons for his frustration and even his anger. Certainly most U.S. leaders who deal with him frequently understand these realities, but some American officials in the past have not, and many back home are confused and angered by his outbursts.

Second, remember that Karzai is doing some good things — despite his mistakes. For example, he has appointed a crop of governors and ministers recently who are, on balance, probably stronger than their predecessors, and often quite competent and patriotic.

Third, recall that Karzai does not equal Afghanistan. He is not his country’s only figure of importance. We helped write a constitution in 2003/2004 that gave him huge powers, meaning that we are partly at fault for the power he has wielded and the mistakes he has made since.

But there are many other Afghans who are easier to work with — and more appreciative of American and international sacrifice. We can work more with them.

Fourth, think harder about 2014, when Karzai must constitutionally step down from the presidency. We are doing little to help Afghans prepare for that crucial transition—which increases the risk that Karzai’s cronies will encourage him to revise the constitution to seek a third term himself. That would be a big mistake. It is time for Washington to support stronger Afghan parties, parliamentarians and local leaders.

Democracy does not mean the tyranny of the majority or a president. Everywhere in the world, it requires a constitutional system of checks and balances to work. We have been too shy about making this point, and thus too reserved in dealing with virtually all Afghans besides Karzai. We created a quasi-dictatorial Afghan presidency and are now often surprised by the result.

So this is not the time to throw up our arms, just as our military strategy is starting to work. Rather, it is the time to develop a political strategy for Afghanistan that matches the improvement in our military strategy.

We need to start finding ways to be realistic about what Karzai can deliver. While also looking beyond him — to other Afghans who are willing and able to do so much for their country and its future.