BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Longing for the early years of the Bush administration, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been consumed by anti-U.S. conspiracy theories, convinced American officials are now working against him, according to a diplomatic cable from the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
The cable was sent in July 2009, which would become the deadliest month for foreign troops since the 2001 invasion. The surge in casualties resulted from an offensive to oust the Taliban in opium-rich Helmand Province, as well as the increasing power of roadside bombs. On July 7, when Amb. Karl Eikenberry met with Karzai, the Afghan president was looking backward rather than forward, wistfully longing for the early days of the Bush administration, which he referred to as a "golden age."
"Karzai then returned to a familiar theme, his wish for Afghan-U.S. relations to recover the spirit of 2002-04 -- a period Karzai sees as a 'golden age' in the relationship," wrote Eikenberry in a July 16 cable obtained by WikiLeaks and published by The New York Times. "He would like for U.S. forces to again be able to drive their humvees through villages, greeted warmly by villagers who would shout, 'Good morning, Sergeant Thompson.' Karzai claimed, as he has many times, that his concern over the erosion of public trust in the U.S. was a driving factor in his increasingly strident criticism regarding civilian casualties, night raids and detentions."
Eikenberry took issue with Karzai's characterization of that period being a "golden age" -- and reminded him that he should be looking forward to the future rather than back to the past. Even in 2002-2004, Eikenberry told Karzai, it was clear that "trouble was brewing as the focus on security and reconstruction drifted and declined due to lack of resources and a comprehensive strategy."
"I stressed to Karzai that our primary goal in Afghanistan is not to win public support for the U.S., but rather to help the Afghan government win its own people's hearts and minds by enabling it to provide basic security and effective governance to the people," relayed Eikenberry. "In five years, we expect to still have forces in Afghanistan, but with the majority as advisors and trainers in support of ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] in areas such as logistics, air support, intelligence, etc. Returning to Karzai's hopes for the future, I told him Americans do not long for a day in which their soldiers are hailed throughout Afghanistan; they are instead growing impatient for the day a respected Afghan Army and national police force are fully capable of providing security to the Afghan populace. Time is not unlimited."
Amb. William Taylor, vice president at the United States Institute of Peace, was in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2003, working for both the Afghan finance minister and the U.S. embassy, coordinating international assistance coming into the country. He returns to Afghanistan two or three times each year, going as recently as a few weeks ago. He said that security and people-to-people relationships shortly after the invasion were better, although there were significant shortcomings in other areas.
"I traveled with the military, but I also traveled with the assistance providers -- USAID and some of their implementing partners -- without very much security," he told the Huffington Post on Tuesday. "So we were able to travel around pretty much as we wanted. As we traveled, I was struck by the warm attitude of Afghans toward Americans ... It was a very good time for U.S.-Afghan people relations."
That time, however, was also characterized by inadequate resources flowing into Afghanistan from the international community, which made progress difficult.
"The problem, of course, was the resources that were available to the United States in particular, and to other alliance partners more broadly, weren't anywhere near what were required and necessary to make some progress both on reconstruction and training and equipping the army and the police," Taylor added. "So in that regard, again, looking back on it, that's what we know now, because now we're finally getting the resources there. The resources that are available to both the embassy and the coalition now -- in terms of people and soldiers and dollars and assistance -- today it just dwarfs what we had in 2002 and 2003."
Karzai also repeatedly focused on anti-U.S. conspiracy theories and took a "blame America" approach that worried Eikenberry, and further, made him and the Afghan government not seem like credible partners. Karzai would consistently tell senior U.S. visitors that America had "failed in Afghanistan," and he refused to "acknowledge any meaningful progress resulting from U.S. contributions."
Further, Karzai was convinced that Obama administration officials were helping his challengers, including Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, rather than helping him in his bid for reelection. "Karzai clearly expected (or hoped) to receive the same U.S. support for his candidacy that he received in the 2004 election, and interprets our neutral stance in this election as evidence that the U.S. is 'against' him," wrote Eikenberry.
Amb. James Dobbins was President Bush's first representative to the Afghan opposition, dispatched to the country in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He told The Huffington Post that while personal relationships were stronger in the early years of the Bush administration, many of the early expectations on each side were inflated, leading to disappointment afterward.
"I think Karzai, personally, was grateful to the U.S.," said Dobbins. "The U.S. was instrumental to his emergence as a leader, and the U.S. was certainly responsible for supporting his insurgency effort against the Taliban. And the U.S. was pleased with the emergence of Karzai as a leader in a part of the world where extremism and xenophobia were legend, if not entirely accurate; he seemed to personify a modern, cosmopolitan, and progressive worldview. And the Afghan populace, as a whole, were grateful to the U.S. and the international community that had defended a Taliban regime that had been generally unpopular, and promised substantial external assistance. I think some of those early expectations were disappointed on both sides."
But at the time, added Dobbins, who is now with the RAND Corporation, there were underlying difficulties mounting in the security arena. "The Taliban were regrouping and posing a more dangerous threat, largely from a sanctuary in Pakistan, so it wasn't entirely visible at the time," he said. "Promises of international assistance were slow to arrive, and manifested less visibly than expected. And Karzai's government was having trouble taking hold, in part because the international community wasn't providing the back-up they should have."
Questions about Karzai's fitness to be the leader of Afghanistan and a key U.S. ally run throughout several of the cables obtained by WikiLeaks. As The Huffington Post's Ryan Grim highlighted, Karzai has also repeatedly released well-connected officials convicted of or charged with drug trafficking in Afghanistan, frustrating efforts to combat corruption and providing evidence that he himself is corrupt.