America's New Relationship With Hamid Karzai

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Thursday's inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's second term was met with deep concerns over Karzai's leadership and corruption. President Obama and the White House, recognizing America's dysfunctional relationship with Karzai but strategic need for a close ally in Kabul, are initiating a significant shift in our diplomatic relationship with the Afghan President. What will it entail and, more to the point, will it work?

  • 'Softer Approach' Led By Clinton The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran lays out the new strategy, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replacing Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke as Karzai's point contact. "[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," he writes. "Despite the changes, administration officials maintain that they are not going soft on Karzai."
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.

Although there is broad agreement among Obama's national security team that Karzai has been an ineffective leader, a growing number of top officials have begun to question in recent months whether those actions wound up goading him into doing exactly what the White House did not want: forging alliances with former warlords, letting drug traffickers out of prison and threatening to sack competent ministers. Those U.S. officials now think that Karzai, a tactically shrewd tribal chieftain who is under enormous stress as he seeks to placate and balance rival factions in his government, may operate best when he does not feel besieged.
  • Richard Holbrooke's Decline? Spencer Ackerman wonders what happened to the man once seen as a top candidate to become Obama's Secretary of State. "Poor Richard Holbrooke! First it was Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) who overshadowed the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan by brokering Karzai's acquiescence to the (ultimately ill-faded) runoff election. And now his boss is doing a job that was supposed to fall under his portfolio," he writes. "If Stuart Bowen's proposal for a new U.S. Office of Contingency Operations goes forward -- and a formalized proposal for it is coming very soon -- Holbrooke will lose that role as well. So where would that leave Holbrooke, the premiere diplomat of his generation?"
  • Karzai Works For Obama The L.A. Times's Pashtoon Atif argues Americans should take an even stronger role. "Afghanistan is not at this point a sovereign state," he writes. "We Afghans wonder every day why your officials haven't done more to coerce reform among our officials. [...] our government is so corrupt and incapable of providing basic services and protection to its citizens that what we find truly infuriating at this point is the lack of interference."
  • Working Around Karzai The American Prospect's Tim Fernholz suggests the American plan is a ruse to get around Karzai entirely. "Essentially, U.S. officials have realized Karzai is inept and are bypassing him, which is much better explanation of why he's suddenly decided the U.S. ought to be his critical partner," he writes. "Maybe the U.S. is taking a warmer tone with Karzai, but that's because they've realized how ineffectual he is, which in turn has led him to emphasize his value to the American project. The combination of the U.S. dealing with the facts on the ground and Karzai being cooperative might be a very good outcome indeed."
  • Bush Was Even Chummier The New Republic's Jason Zengerle compares. "Of course, this is Obama's second 'reset' of the relationship with Afghanistan, since he took office vowing to take a harder line with Karzai than Bush did. But it does sound as if Obama isn't planning to get quite as chummy with Karzai as Bush was."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.