WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is trying a new tack with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai that is bigger on carrots and smaller on sticks.
Despite a series of anti-Western remarks from Mr. Karzai, which included veiled threats to join the Taliban, top US officials are now keen to give the president a little more breathing room. The change in tone from the US comes after a series of rhetorical missteps that have created a diplomatic rift just as the US begins to mount a major offensive in the Afghanistan war in the southern province of in Kandahar.
Now, the US is mending fences.
President Karzai is playing a “very constructive role,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday. “The working relationship with him on a day-to-day basis is still going quite well.”
And on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quick to demonstrate her support for Karzai. “I personally have a lot of sympathy for President Karzai and the extraordinary stress he lives under every single minute of every single day,” she said, recalling her days in the Clinton White House when she and her husband were under heavy political scrutiny.
A change in tone
Just days ago, the administration was sending an entirely different message. Frustrated with Karzai’s lack of progress on combating corruption in his own country, the Obama administration had gone on the offensive during President Obama’s trip last month to Kabul.
On the way home from the trip, National Security Adviser James Jones told reporters that Karzai “needs to be seized with how important” the issue of corruption is for the US government – one of a number of comments by US officials that was seen as a humiliating dressing down of Karzai, who is scheduled to visit Washington in May.
One area where the US would like to see changes is in the election complaint commission – making it more responsive to the Afghan public. Karzai has resisted, taking the position that he should appoint all its members, which in turn angers Western officials.
Karzai has reacted to all this with characteristic emotion and frustration. In a speech to the Afghan Parliament last week, for example, Karzai complained about foreign presence and has said that the West had committed “vast fraud” in the Afghan presidential election that Karzai ultimately won. In another remark, Karzai said his frustrations with the West might even lure him to join the Taliban.
Karzai’s remarks were an embarrassment at home, where the US is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to help Afghans neutralize the Taliban in a war that Americans remain extremely wary of fighting.
It got ‘out of control’
What began as a concerted effort on the part of the US to exert some pressure on Karzai went too far, says Tony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
“It started out as a reasonable amount of pressure,” he says, and “got out of control on both sides.”
Now there is recognition that each side needs the other, he says. The US has long complained corruption in Afghanistan, where payoffs, bribery and other forms of graft are a way of life. The US tends to look at this with disdain, failing to recognize the need to be tolerant of another culture in which survival may depend on a certain level of corruption that no amount of US influence can change, says Mr. Cordesman.
“We’re not going to fight any of these wars against terrorists and insurgents with perfect allies who have a heritage of effective Western governance and operate according to Western values,” he says. “All you have to do is look at the map and realize that we’re going to work with allies that fundamentally differ from us in a number of respects.”