Working With Karzai

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Peter Galbraith, former deputy of the UN mission in Kabul, who was fired from that post over a quarrel about vote-rigging in last year's elections, lays out the case against Hamid Karzai in the Washington Post. The piece is strong on what's wrong with Karzai, but not so helpful on what to do about it. The recommendations start out timid and end up despairing, with nothing in between.

The Obama administration should put the United States squarely on the side of democracy in Afghanistan. First, U.S. officials should stop saying, as Gibbs did Tuesday, that Karzai is in office as a result of legitimate democratic elections... As Congress considers appropriations for the Afghanistan war, it should attach a rider making any U.S. financial contribution to the parliamentary elections contingent on Afghanistan establishing genuinely independent election bodies that have no Karzai appointees... As bad as it would be to not hold parliamentary elections, fraudulent elections could plunge Afghanistan into a civil war...

U.S. troops do not have the credible Afghan partner that is essential for the success of Obama's counterinsurgency strategy. And because U.S. troops cannot accomplish their mission in Afghanistan, it is a waste of military resources to have them there.

President Obama should halt the surge in Afghanistan and initiate a partial withdrawal -- not as a means to pressure Karzai but because Karzai's government is incapable of becoming a credible local partner.

Would fair elections, desirable as they may be, yield different or better partners? I'm not sure whether Galbraith wants "partial withdrawal" unless the parliamentary elections are clean, or partial withdrawal regardless.(And if Galbraith is right about the current hopelessness of the war, why only "partial"?)

Outright defeat seems a poor alternative to making the best of the bad partner the US undeniably has in Karzai. Brookings scholars Bruce Riedel and Michael O'Hanlon argue that the US has no choice but to work with Karzai, and that the prospect is far from hopeless. The FT agrees, while calling for a stronger push towards devolution of aid efforts to provincial leaders.

How disappointed [with Karzai] the US is entitled to feel... is debatable. What did anybody expect? Mr Karzai's ability to do business with the country's countless factions, including elements of the Taliban, was why the US backed him in the first place. Yes, the election was rigged - but the US allowed it to be. Yet the news on corruption, and on Afghan capacity-building, is not all bad. There has been modest but measurable progress, and Mr Karzai has stood behind some effective subordinates.

Anyway, if not Mr Karzai, who? The US gets the worst of both worlds when it installs a flawed leader, assents to his rigged re-election, then undermines him in public. Mr Karzai is their man and, for now, he is all they have got.

See also this report by Edward Luce and Daniel Dombey on Galbraith's claim that the Karzai is a drug user--which I had taken to be a joke, but which the White House felt obliged to call an "outlandish allegation" for which there is "no evidence". Obviously, that makes you wonder. The piece describes tensions within the administration over Afghan policy.


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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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