The Resetting of Afghan-U.S. Diplomacy

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No one felt very good about Thursday's inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's second term. The White House, recognizing the necessity of a close ally in Kabul but the need for our complicated relationship with Karzai to change, is hitting reset. The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran explains our "softer approach" to be led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

[T]op diplomats and generals are abandoning for now their get-tough tactics with Karzai and attempting to forge a far warmer relationship. They recognize that their initial strategy may have done more harm than good, fueling stress and anger in a beleaguered, conspiracy-minded leader whom the U.S. government needs as a partner.
The new approach, which one official described as a "reset" of the relationship, will entail more engagement with members of Karzai's cabinet and provincial governors, officials said, because they have concluded that the Afghan president lacks the political clout in his highly decentralized nation to purge corrupt local warlords and power brokers. The CIA has sent a longtime field officer close to Karzai to be the new station chief in Kabul. And State Department envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, whose aggressive style has infuriated the Afghan leader at times, is devoting more attention to shaping policy in Washington and marshaling international support for reconstruction and development programs.

President Obama's war strategy has typically treated Karzai as more like part of the problem than part of the solution. Replacing hard-charging Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke with higher-ranking Clinton, who is showing more deference to Karzai, as Karzai's point contact positions him as less a subordinate nuisance and more a strategic partner. This shift, as well as the increased attention U.S. officials are giving to the Afghan government at all levels, implies some serious changes. It sets up the U.S. as not just a counter-terrorism, counterinsurgency force, but a long-term partner in building Afghan government and civil society. It suggests out mission in Afghanistan will be as much or more focused on Afghan governance and political stability as on finding and killing the Taliban.

The military looks to be on board as well. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates yesterday said, "improvements in governance in Afghanistan will be evolutionary. We are not going to go from a situation where we have a fair amount of dissatisfaction now to believing that these problems have been solved in two weeks or a month, or on the basis of a single speech." Gates appears to be signaling his attention to and participation in a long-haul approach that makes governance a top priority. "[C]orruption and a lack of good government -- governance --are real impediments to the success of both the Afghan government and our own efforts." It's one thing for Holbrooke or Clinton to care about governance, but Gates focusing on governance suggests that the military and nation-building missions in Afghanistan will go very much hand-in-hand.

As President Obama nears his decision on increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, the implication here isn't as much about numbers as duration. Everyone agrees that building civil society in a place that has none will take years, and if the military is a part of that, it would imply a long-term military presence. In a Q&A on Tuesday with USA Today, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, anticipated "four to five years" before an exit.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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