Obama, Karzai and the Love Movement
The New York Times has a good overview of the tone of this week’s Washington visit by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai: an end to nearly 18 months of very public pressure, doubts and the occasional insult, and the beginning of an embrace. Why?
“Two things are happening,” said Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain. “One, there wasn’t much payoff from the earlier approach. And second, it’s sunk in, after the Afghan elections last year, that this is the guy who’s going to be here for four years and change, so we better get along with him because we don’t have an alternative.”
But there was a reason why the Obama administration kept the relationship with Karzai frosty: he’s an unreliable partner, as expressed by his election theft. Accordingly, the administration drew two conclusions. First, it needed to build deeper relationships with Afghan government institutions and focus its support to non-military institutions on what it likes to call “sub-national” efforts at the provincial and district levels — that is, further from Karzai’s control. Second, it needed to show Karzai that U.S. support to his priorities was conditioned on his performance. “The days of providing a blank check are over,” Obama said in his West Point speech announcing the “extended surge.”
At least part of the first lesson is still in evidence by Karzai’s humongous entourage of cabinet ministers, who’ve traveled to Washington to meet with their American opposites. The second lesson is in doubt. Not everyone in the administration appears comfortable with its prospective abridgement. Going forward, the key question isn’t whether Karzai feels adequately loved by President Obama, as he was by President Bush. It’s whether he feels like he can resist Obama’s pressure to deliver on capable governance and get rewarded with a fancy week-long celebration in Washington.
If anything, it mirrors a decision Obama made last year on Pakistan, when he instructed his administration to stop its public pressure in order to forge a more productive relationship.