How Do You Solve A Problem Like Diem, I Mean, Karzai?

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with a round-up

Max Boot at Commentary:

Hamid Karzai is at it again. For the second time in recent days, he has lashed out at the West, blaming foreign officials for election fraud and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban if there is any erosion of his country’s sovereignty. Such comments — coming from the man who benefitted from election fraud and who is able to stay in power only because of all the military assistance he receives from the West — are, no doubt about it, infuriating. But they are hardly unexpected, given that Karzai has a habit of boiling over in public right after he has been pressured by the United States, which is what happened when President Obama visited Kabul.


Bottom line: we don’t have any choice but to work with Karzai. Pulling U.S. troops out because we’re unhappy with him isn’t an option; our forces aren’t there as a favor to Karzai but to prevent a Taliban takeover that would be far worse for our interests than anything Karzai is likely to do in office. There is also no realistic chance of getting a new Afghan president anytime soon because Karzai was just elected to a five-year term. So we have to make the best of the current situation and try to soothe the sensitive Karzai rather than getting his back up with high-handed reprimands, especially in public.

Spencer Ackerman:

On the presumption that Karzai is being accurately quoted — something his spokesman denies — this is starting to fall into some I-wish-a-motherfucker-would territory. A failed attempt at a power-grab calling the integrity of the next government into question leads Karzai to bandwagon with the Taliban? That’s like the guy at the Burger King angrily swearing that if he accepts my expired coupon he’ll be left with no choice but to give me unlimited refills. Let the Omar-Karzai negotiations begin! Can we throw in Ahmed Wali Karzai and a couple draft picks?

The governance effort in the south is about strengthening sub-national governance and creating credible, deliverable reachback to the ministries. Whether by design or by default, the effect is that it balances/reduces Karzai’s influence while bolstering the stuff he was supposed to be doing anyway in terms of making a material impact on Afghan lives. Obviously it’s a strategy that has its limits: Karzai still governs the country, appoints ministers, etc. (To say nothing of what sub-national governance means in an area, for instance, in which people self-identify as Taliban.)

He successfully stole an election — that should be a decisive verdict on his interest in a well-run Afghanistan. To the extent the U.S. has no choice but to stick with him, the current strategy of caring more about sub-national governance than Kabul governance for immediate-to-medium-term impact has its merits. It wouldn’t be such a terrible thing to dial down tensions, but if Karzai is just going to brazenly walk back his walkbacks, then it’s sort of pointless.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

Karzai’s Really, Really Bad Joke

Or, let’s hope it was a joke, anyway

Michael Rubin at The Corner:

Daniel, don’t forget that Karzai was once with the Taliban (see page 2 of this declassified PDF document).

In recent weeks, the press has focused on Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi’s relationship with the Iranians and Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai going off the rails and threatening to join the Taliban. The press did not focus on — but could have — Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s meetings in Iran last week, and Iraqi politician Ayad Allawi’s embrace of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad earlier last month.

Too many policymakers, I’d argue, have not seen the forest through the trees. With any of these folks, it’s easy to say that the CIA or Pentagon or State Department simply got them wrong. That logic is too simple. All of these politicians pivot to maximize their own power and ally themselves with whomever they see as the dominant power. Previously, that was us. Now, it’s either Tehran or Damascus (in Iraq’s case) or the ISI’s Islamabad (in Karzai’s case). Karzai’s move comes not only amidst U.S. pressure to reform, but also after the success of Hillary Clinton’s so-called “strategic dialogue” with Pakistan. Behind all the self-congratulatory backslapping of the Obama administration and its fans in the press was a fact which Karzai certainly noticed — the White House acknowledged and legitimized Pakistan’s dominant role in Afghanistan.

Patrick Pexton at National Journal:

Karzai clearly wants to portray himself as the strong man in the face of increased foreign troop presence in his own country and steady western pressure on him to run a cleaner, more effective government. But he often seems like he’s playing a double game. On March 10 he hosted Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, just hours after Defense Secretary Robert Gates had departed Kabul. What do we do about Karzai? On the one hand, he is beginning to fit the stereotype of the U.S.-backed corrupt foreign leader, i.e. Ngo Dinh Diem or Nguyen Cao Ky in Vietnam, Somoza in Nicaragua, or a host of others. On the other hand, he has a point: Whose country is Afghanistan anyway, theirs or ours? Can Obama execute his strategy in Afghanistan with Karzai? What should be the U.S. posture toward Hamid Karzai and his Afghanistan government?

Scott Horton at Harper’s:

The entire situation looks painfully like the one that confronted John F. Kennedy in the last weeks of his administration in dealing with Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. President Diem was instinctively authoritarian and corrupt, relying heavily on his extended family and allowing them to enrich themselves on the basis of his authority. Government contracts, including contracts that funneled U.S. assistance, were a substantial part of the graft problem. Ultimately, the Kennedy Administration appears to have concluded that Diem was too corrupt and incompetent to be an effective ally, and the Americans turned on him. Learning that the South Vietnamese army was plotting a coup, the Americans apparently gave the effort a green light. Diem was toppled, and he and his brother were shot and buried in a grave next to the ambassadorial residence of Henry Cabot Lodge in the first days of November 1963. Kennedy was himself assassinated only three weeks later, but the toppling of Diem was one of the events that triggered a change in policy ultimately leading to a heavy escalation of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam. The American effort in Vietnam was consistently crippled by the impression that the Saigon government was a weak American proxy, lacking legitimacy to rule.

The legitimacy of the government in Kabul is essential to the success of the allies’ military operations there. Karzai thus presents a particularly thorny problem. He is widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective, but to some extent the United States has contributed to that problem and that perception. And removing and replacing Karzai through extraordinary measures would likely only make the situation still worse. Karzai is Afghanistan’s elected president, and American policymakers need to accept that fact.

Daniel Korski at The Spectator

Amy Davidson at The New Yorker

Fred Kaplan at Slate:

The issue here is not Karzai’s peevishness or ingratitude. The issue is whether, under the circumstances, a counterinsurgency campaign can work—whether we’re wasting lives and money.

One key question, which U.S. officials are exploring, is whether this rupture with Karzai can be mended. Some officials cite a chronology of events that suggests we may have (unwittingly) sent him off the deep end and that, therefore, we might be able to calm him back down.


It may be time for Obama to send Sen. John Kerry back to Kabul for another half-dozen meetings with Karzai, over 300 more cups of tea, as he did last October, when he persuaded the Afghan president to hold a second round of elections after the first round was proved to be so rigged.

Maybe Kerry can pamper Karzai with recitations of reassurances. If not, there’s trouble ahead. Obama could threaten to pull out of Afghanistan if Karzai doesn’t straighten up, but Karzai would surely see this as a bluff and might call it. Then what? If Obama really sees his commitment as vital to U.S. interests (and he wouldn’t have ordered the escalation if he didn’t), then he’s not likely to take the gamble.

Another option is to go around Karzai’s authority and deal more with Afghanistan’s provincial governors and tribal elders. This has been part of Obama’s plan all along. Last November, shortly before announcing his new strategy, Obama said in an ABC-TV interview that he and his advisers were focusing on “not just a national government in Kabul but provincial government actors that have legitimacy in the right now.”

Gerard Russell, a former U.N. official in Kabul (who is now at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy), said in a phone interview Monday that the Western coalition is pursuing this approach to some extent. The ongoing military operation in Helmand province has elevated the power of some independent Afghans there, at the expense of Karzai’s people.

However, Russell added, there are risks to going around Karzai as the centerpiece of a strategy. “Karzai is very good at this sort of thing,” Russell said. “He could undermine these regional governors if they get too powerful.”


Former UN envoy Peter Galbraith just said on MSNBC that Afghanistan’s weirdo president, Hamid Karzai, is a junkie. “He can be very emotional, act impulsively,” Galbraith said on the Andrea Mitchell show. “In fact, some of the palace insiders say that he has a certain fondness for some of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports.” Ha ha, you should’ve seen the look on Chuck Todd’s face.

UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman

Ben Smith at Politico, here and here

Daniel Larison


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One response to “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Diem, I Mean, Karzai?

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built This Weekend « Around The Sphere

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