I met Hamid Karzai in 2003 and admittedly was taken by the caped crusader. He had a Nelson Mandela quality to him at the time -- an urbane, polished and thoughtful leader who seemed to represent the best aspirations of his beleaguered Afghani people.
But alas, Hamid Karzai is no Nelson Mandela.
The Hamid Karzai of 2010 has a distasteful "Yassir Arafat" quality to him. Mercurial, corrupt, and prone to surrounding himself with klepto-cronies -- Karzai's vanity is legendary -- right up there in league with the likes of Arafat and similar pseudo-dictators. He is alienating the very international community on which he is so dependent -- some would call this suicidal. To push the historical analogies to the extreme, Karzai seems to be fiddling while Kabul is burning.
Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke was spot on to read Karzai the riot act several months ago about his affliction to corruption and a propensity to play with ballot boxes.
For doing the right thing when no one else was prepared to do so, Holbrooke was unfairly sent to the White House dog house for challenging Karzai with the truth. In return, Karzai made it clear to Secretary of State Clinton that he would no longer deal with Holbrooke. Clinton stuck by Holbrooke -- a justifiable vote of confidence by the Secretary of State in her emissary who also knows what it's like trying to reason with the likes of Karzai.
But with each new antagonistic statement against the U.S. we are running out of officials who can deal with Karzai.
The problem runs much deeper than Karzai himself. Under Afghanistan's Constitution, Karzai has the power to appoint virtually all of the provincial governors, local judges and district officials -- none of whom accordingly have independent power bases, much less any local allegiance. Karzai cuts their paychecks, and many of them are paid handsomely for their obsequiousness. That leaves Karzai in complete control in an opaque central government that is an alien entity to many Afghanis. We have hardly anyone else to deal with who has an independent power base of support.
None of this is good news for U.S. and NATO forces who rightfully wonder why they are fighting on behalf of a Karzai regime that is biting the hands that feed him.
Part of the reason Karzai is playing fast and loose is that he fears a looming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 and what it means to him and his regime. With NATO forces shortly departing despite the momentary surge of U.S. forces, Karzai wrongly believes he can reinvent himself as a new gang member in the "hood" (think of Iran, the Taliban, Pakistan's ISI, etc.). But the neighborhood toughs will never give him the secret handshake. Not even Iran's Ahmadinejad who Karzai recently feted.
There are no illusions nor should there have been about Karzai within team Obama. It was inevitable that Karzai would view Obama as a fair weather friend once Obama announced his attention to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel next summer. And in Diplomacy 101, announcements of withdrawal deadlines = loss of leverage.
I want to believe that Karzai is more Machiavellian than mischievous. That his outbursts against the U.S. and NATO are clumsy camouflage masking potentially fruitful secret negotiations with more "moderate" elements of the Taliban that could transform the political situation in Afghanistan and provide the U.S. a graceful exit with Al Qaeda leaders handcuffed or killed.
There have been sporadic press reports that Karzai is feverishly trying to strike deals with Taliban emissaries for Mullah Omar while NATO forces remain on the ground. But why would the Taliban make a deal with Karzai... they too are not going anywhere after next summer despite military setbacks.
Herein lies the rub. Putting aside his outbursts for the moment, Karzai apparently decided he must use the remaining months before US and NATO forces depart to push reconciliation with the Taliban. Yet Washington wants to inflict as much military damage on the Taliban as possible before U.S. forces depart. Accordingly, attempts at reconciliation under fire are so far proving to be an irreconcilable policy -- driving an ever growing wedge between Karzai and Obama.
Perhaps some elements of the loosely-federated Taliban forces will be hammered enough before next summer to want to strike a deal with Karzai -- we can pray for miracles, can't we?
In the meantime, the U.S. has few options:
1. Deny Karzai a visit to the White House: symbolically a useless gesture.
2. Threaten an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces: I thought our mission was to capture Bin Laden and eradicate Al Qaeda's command structure and its Taliban supporters.
3. Demand a quid pro quo for the billions propping up his regime: time to put strings on those reconstruction funds.
4. Ignore Karzai as much as possible and forge ahead till our withdrawal deadline while hammering Al Qaeda and Taliban supporters: the Afghani people deserve more than being abandoned to the likes of the Taliban. The U.S. abandoned the Afghani people once before to the likes of the Taliban and look where it got us and them.
I myself opt for options #3 and #4.