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Obama's Karzai problem

President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan is starting to show some encouraging signs of momentum. One big problem, however, remains: the Obama administration’s relationship with President Hamid Karzai.

Though he endorsed the Marja operation, Karzai has continued to work against the grain of U.S. strategy in his country, and to surprise Washington with unwelcome moves. The latest came Monday, when the president’s office made public a decree giving Karzai control over the election complaints commission -- the agency that received and documented reports of massive fraud in last year’s presidential vote.

The complaints commission was previously sponsored by the United Nations, which named three of its five members; the Afghan supreme court and an independent human rights commission chose the other two. Now Karzai himself will pick all five -- meaning fraud in this year’s planned parliamentary elections might not be investigated so thoroughly.

Karzai promised to combat corruption and build a more functional government as the United States surged troops to reverse the Taliban’s momentum. But he has twice had cabinet nominees rejected by parliament because of their connections to corrupt warlords or lack of qualifications. He has made a show of seeking high-level negotiations with Taliban leaders, though NATO commanders believe no such deals are possible, at least for now. He has continued to publicly condemn foreign forces for accidents in which civilians are killed -- most recently last weekend, when he held up a photo of a young girl in the Afghan parliament.

In short, Karzai is making it clear that he is no U.S. puppet. This has some political advantages even for the Obama administration. But Karzai’s way of showing independence often involves undermining the nation-building efforts, like staging free and fair elections, that are central to the American strategy.

Obama helped create his Karzai problem. The president has held the Afghan leader at arms length and sometimes publicly criticized him. Afghans say Karzai’s lack of confidence in Washington’s support helped to drive him deeper into the arms of warlords and corrupt provincial bosses who, in turn, perpetrated much of the election fraud. Though the Bush administration had similar troubles in Kabul, Bush sought to build a relationship with Karzai, talking to him regularly by video linkup. Obama hasn’t made the same effort, even after deciding to send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to the country -- though other White House officials, including National Security Advisor James Jones, have been in touch.

In fact, the administration has no choice but to find a way to work with Karzai. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, appears to understand this: He has been briefing Karzai extensively on the unfolding Marja campaign. According to an account in the Wall Street Journal, McChrystal surprised Karzai by seeking his formal signoff before the operation began: “No one has ever asked me before,” he reportedly said. Maybe if McChrystal and other US officials keep seeking Karzai’s counsel before undertaking initiatives, he will do more consulting himself.

By Jackson Diehl  | February 24, 2010; 9:53 AM ET
Categories:  Diehl  | Tags:  Jackson Diehl  
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Please be advised that Obama should not be supporting Karzai no matter what. Karzai put Afghanistan through the worst three months from August through November orchestrating his massive fraud. Now he pulls a power grab and no foreign watch dog will be able to control his election fraud for parliament. The West should pay no to money for these elections if Karzai continues his fraud and corruption. No one needs Karzai the sooner Obama makes that clear the sooner we can establish a true partner in Afghanistan with others that want to work with the West. Shame on this administration if they don't like Europe and the UN condemn this POWER Grab for what it is!!!!!!

Posted by: kabulkathy | February 25, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

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