Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Karzai, the West and the diplomatic marriage from hell
One of my Kabul press corps colleagues once described covering President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Western diplomats who are supposed to be supporting it as a lot like being friends with a couple while they go through a savage divorce. We reporters hop back and forth, from cocktail party to quiet lunch to private briefing, listening to charming Afghans and Westerners -– many of whom we personally like very much — say outrageously nasty things about each other. Usually, the invective is whispered “off the record” by both sides, so you, dear reader, miss out on the opportunity to learn just how dysfunctional one of the world’s most important diplomatic relationships has become.
Over the past few weeks, the secret got out. Karzai — in a speech that was described as an outburst but which palace insiders say was carefully planned — said in public what his allies have been muttering in private for months: that Western diplomats orchestrated the notorious election debacle last year that saw a third of his votes thrown out for fraud. The White House and State Department were apoplectic: “disturbing”, “untrue”, “preposterous” they called it. Peter Galbraith, the U.S. diplomat who was the number two U.N. official in Kabul during last year’s election, went on TV and said he thought Karzai might be crazy or on drugs. Karzai’s camp’s response: Who’s being preposterous now?
Then, like every good marital fight, it was suddenly over. There were Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates assuring Americans that Karzai is, in fact a “reliable partner”. Karzai, without taking back a word of his speech, let it be known that he held no grudges. On Saturday, the Afghan president and the United Nations sealed the deal by agreeing new rules for the next election.
Readers can be forgiven for wondering what on earth is the matter with some of these people.
For the record: I’m no doctor, but I think the Afghan president is probably not a mentally ill drug addict. Nor do I think Western officials were trying to overthrow him by engineering ballot fraud last year. I do think both sides are doing themselves real harm by shouting at each other.
There are still a few diplomats that Karzai likes, and some who like Karzai. And this is Afghanistan, after all, a country where “enemies” are often just the people you are trying to kill until they become your friends. Karzai is a master at working with people he distrusts: many of the members of his cabinet belong to groups that were –- literally — at war with each other at various times. His first vice president was once a rival faction’s security boss who threw him in jail.
But it still seems unhealthy that so many decisions are being made by an Afghan president and Western diplomatic corps who get along so badly. The problem is likely to get worse in coming months, with another ropey election looming and the focus of the war about to shift to Kandahar, Karzai’s home town, where his family draws its power and wealth. Already, U.S. officials are briefing privately that they want to get rid of Karzai’s brother, the lordly head of the Kandahar provincial council. Nobody thinks Karzai will allow that to happen.
In fact, despite the simmering personal animosity between Karzai and so many Western officials, it’s often remarkable how well the relationship works. This month’s slanging match was over election rules, which were finally resolved amicably by the compromise announced on Saturday. Karzai stripped foreigners of the majority on an anti-fraud election panel, but gave them a minority with veto power. The deal was hammered out by the new U.N. envoy in Kabul, Staffan de Mistura, a widely-admired veteran Swedish-Italian diplomat that one colleague describes as a mix of “Italian bella figura and Swedish steel”. He is one of the only people in Kabul that nobody seems to have anything bad to say about.
When Western diplomats have burned their bridges to Karzai, others have often stepped in. Karzai’s relationship with U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry was perhaps irreparably damaged when Eikenberry described Karzai in a cable to Washington as “not an adequate strategic partner”. Karzai has since gravitated instead to General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO military commander, who has given day-to-day command to a deputy so that he has more time for diplomacy and politics.
When it became clear during last year’s election fiasco that Karzai could not abide the combative U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke -– the two men had what diplomats diplomatically call a “frank exchange” — Washington sent Senator John Kerry to plead its case instead. Kerry persuaded Karzai to abandon his claim to have won the election in a single round. (Karzai’s aides are always full of effusive praise for Kerry, their not-so-subtle way of showing how much they dislike Holbrooke. Holbrooke says his rapport with Karzai is fine.)
Of course, Karzai is not the only target. Sometimes the people diplomats speak least diplomatically about are — other diplomats. Galbraith’s verbal blood feud with his boss, Kai Eide, became legendary, splitting the U.N. mission into rival camps that gossiped about each other like vipers. It ended with Galbraith being sacked, but only after he accused Eide of trying to help Karzai steal the election. The feud really did feel like a family breakup: Eide and Galbraith had been old friends, and, as they both repeatedly reminded everyone, Eide had even introduced Galbraith to the future Mrs. Galbraith. A wrathful Eide held a press conference to denounce his former deputy for betraying his trust. Among Galbraith’s alleged sins: repeating comments made at the dinner table.
Other feuds abound. Eikenberry’s staff seethe about Holbrooke’s staff, whom they blame for speaking off message, acting high-handed and probably leaking Eikenberry’s damaging memo about Karzai. McChrystal was said to be furious with Eikenberry for opposing his request for more troops.
With the fate of a troubled nation at risk and 130,000 Western troops in harm’s way, maybe it’s time for some marriage counseling. At least for the sake of the children.