Two views on Obama’s handling of Karzai

May 7, 2009

With President Hamid Karzai now looking all but unassailable in Afghanistan’s August election, two articles out this week – one from Washington and the other from India – offer mirror-image analyses of President Barack Obama’s handling of the Afghan leader. They should really be read as companion pieces since both offer insights into the workings of the Obama administration and the complexities of Afghan politics.  Reading both together also highlights how different the world looks depending on your perspective, whether writing from America or Asia.According to this article in the Washington Post by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (highlighted by Joshua Foust at the Obama administration had decided to keep Karzai at arm’s length. It says Obama’s advisers faulted former President George W. Bush for forging too personal a relationship with Karzai through bi-weekly video conferences and as a result creating such cosiness that it became hard for his administration to put pressure on the Afghan government.”It was a conversation. It was a dialogue. It was a lot of ‘How are you doing? How is your son?'” it quotes a senior U.S. government official who attended some of the sessions as saying. “Karzai sometimes placed his infant son on his lap during the conversations.””Obama’s advisers have crafted a two-pronged strategy that amounts to a fundamental break from the avuncular way President George W. Bush dealt with the Afghan leader,” the report said.  “Obama intends to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with Karzai in the hope that it will lead him to address issues of concern to the United States, according to senior U.S. government officials. The administration will also seek to bypass Karzai by working more closely with other members of his cabinet and by funnelling more money to local governors.”Retired Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, has a rather different reading on the wisdom of the Obama administration’s approach. In this article in the Asia Times Online, headlined What Obama could learn from Karzai, (highlighted by Marie-France Calle on her French-language blog), he says the Americans allowed themselves to be outmanoeuvred by the Afghan President by keeping him at arms-length.”In retrospect, United States President Barack Obama did a great favour to Afghan President Hamid Karzai by excluding him from his charmed circle of movers and shakers who would wield clout with the new administration in Washington,” he writes. “Obama was uncharacteristically rude to Karzai by not even conversing with him by telephone for weeks after he was sworn in, even though Afghanistan was the number one policy priority of his presidency.”But Karzai, he says, had the last laugh, as the opprobrium heaped upon him by the west raised his standing in Afghan eyes. Karzai had been able to manoeuvre himself into a strong position through weeks of Afghan-style backroom negotiations, capped by a decision by a popular candidate to pull out of the election race.”The Afghan experience with democracy offers a good lesson for Obama: it is best to keep a discreet distance and leave the Afghans to broker power-sharing on their own terms, according to their own ethos and tradition,” he writes. “However, Obama has a long way to go in imbibing the lessons of democracy in the Hindu Kush …”(Reuters photos: President Karzai, and Karzai with President Obama and Vice President Biden. Photos by Yuri Gripas and Jonathan Ernst)


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Let the Afghans decide the fate of their future.Imposing your well on Afghans will never work.If they feel that they are being dectated by others the Afghans will never accet it and will resist to any such action.

Posted by vijay | Report as abusive

Interesting.It would be very good if President Karzai would stop playing politics and try to achieve more transparent governance in Afghanistan.The word always is there is a lot of corruption in Afghanistan government. Transparency is very important to ensure good governance and this holds for every country.

Posted by Umair | Report as abusive

Afghanistan was not helped properly during the Bush years. Rumsfeld completely ignored the importance of nation building and preferred to deal with the war lords. This resulted in the democratic government becoming a namesake one. The UN’s Afghanistan experts urged the need to empowering Karzai by discouraging the war lords and those who ran the Afghan operation from Washington ignored it. It took a long time before agreeing that Afghanistan’s national army has to be built from scratch and the US reluctantly got into it. With almost nothing in terms of power, Karzai had to rely on war lords and turn a blind eye to their corrupt activities. With Obama entering the scene, things will look better for Afghanistan. Obama’s team realized right away that Afghanistan can never take off without stabilizing Pakistan and eliminating the Taliban and Al Qaeda from its territory and its supporters in the Pakistani establishment. I am hoping that Obama will resolve the issues in both nations and allow for normalcy to return. I don’t think things can be changed overnight. It is going to take a few years of concerted and consistent efforts in both nations. I am positive things will work for the better.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

Holbrooke will take care of Karzai & in due course get him in the good books of Uncle Sam who’s presently a confused man not knowing whose advice to trust…(if sensible will ultimately lean towards Holbrooke)Meanwhile a million NWFP locals have been displaced, is the Pak Army upto some trick?

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

Umair,Can u please tell me who are the ” Americans” to tell us what we need to do. Let them leave all the 3 countries alone. Let them pack their bags & go home.From what u desire of transparency & good governance is desire of every common man. But do you know all the money looted from our public is parked with western financial institutions. So the whole thing is a American trick to keep dominating the world. No doubt everyone in india now realizes enemy number one is America so is in pakistan i hope the chinese also realizes that & every one in asia & middle east thinks the same. it will be such a lovely world when one fine day americans get up in their bed & start to think it is better to be in their own country than to go all over the world & mess everyone’s life. Shame on them for destroying everybody livelihood.

Posted by Vijay | Report as abusive

Umair,Can u please tell me who are the ” Americans” to tell us what we need to do. Let them leave all the 3 countries alone. Let them pack their bags & go home.–posted by Vijay to UmairVijay: In thory, USA is no body to tell Af-Pak and India what to. But they do because one lets them do. In Kashmir, India does not want to involve a 3rd party going with your thinking that India-Pak bilateraly will take care and US or UK has no role to play. But as you would have noticed Pakistan does not feel the same way–they want to involve 3rd party–this is their pattern (hey guys no bashing going on here). And Pak does not feel the same way in Af-Pak region too. If pak parties with invaders such as USA (cold war; Jihadi CIA/ISI), then Pak has invited USA. Pak never said learnt to say NO, thus the trouble now. So looking at the superficial picture that who Pak is anti-US is full of crap. Their leaders take poor decisions. While your view is right but do not fall for any theory that USA is totally imposing itself. Pak has allowed this to happen because of their Chronic addiction to easy $$$$$$. Fight is not the only time when you come to know the spine and guts of a person, right choices are when one can show it. Pak has yet to show.Afghanistan is ravished by one and all, the tribes, the Russians, the Americans, the Pakistanis. India is there and is building roads. It will take some generations before a popular leader will emerge from the rubbles of Afghanistan–Karzai can be handled anywhich way.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Rajeev,The article is about Afghanistan & USA. The relevance of Pakistan or India is not important. What you need to understand is ” change has not come to this part of the world”. karzai is the official head of Afghanistan & to belittle him by not talking to him Obama has just showed his consistency of American Arrogance.By virtually pillaging Afghanistan you can’t expect people there to sit idle & count american dollar which will be thrown as crumbs.They will breed more warriors & that responsibility will belong to america.Nature & Afghan people will retaliate against brute power.The truth of the matter is Americans have messed this entire world. If only they had been tactful & used little diplomacy post 9/11 the world would have been a safer place.

Posted by vijay | Report as abusive

Vijay@The article is about Afghanistan & USA. The relevance of Pakistan or India is not important.Vijay: I was specifically addressing (not defending US) your resentment against US in this comment: “Can u please tell me who are the ” Americans” to tell us what we need to do. Let them leave all the 3 countries alone. Let them pack their bags & go home.”Clearly you ventured outside the scope of this blog and I had to follow you there. Hope this explains.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive