Is Karzai losing US support?

Al Jazeera’s Nick Spicer reports on a change in approach in Obama’s Afghanistan policy.

afghanistan karzai
Recent US official statements indicate that Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, may no longer be Washington’s point man in Kabul [EPA]

Hamid who?

That would appear to be the subtext of much official comment about Afghanistan in the US capital these days, where that country’s fraud-tainted, and poorly-reelected president, Hamid Karzai, has apparently become unmentionable.

Exhibit A: Barack Obama, the US president, gave an interview to a national television network this week, and managed to talk about Afghanistan without using the words “president,” “Karzai” or “election.”

Instead, Obama, who is intensively reviewing a proposal to increase US military presence in that country, said his administration was looking for new people in Afghanistan to talk to.

“…we are identifying not just a national government in Kabul, but provincial government actors that have legitimacy right now,” Obama told the network.

The national government is headed, of course, by Hamid Karzai. He held on to his job after his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, said on November 1 he was dropping out of the presidential election runoff, because he expected more of the widespread cheating which took place during the first round.

Exhibit B: Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, reacted to the news that Washington’s carefully-crafted script of a fraud-cleansing second round had been torn up and left in tatters, by saying that the US would work with not just the Afghan president but “local” and “regional” players in Afghanistan.

Bruce Riedel, a top Obama adviser on Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera via email:

“The administration is trying to recover from the disaster of the Afghan election. It ended up with an outcome that lacks legitimacy and credibility for Afghans, our Nato allies and the American public.”

Washington’s dilemma

In a television interview, Obama said he would work with other leaders in Afghanistan [EPA]

Such statements go a long way to explain why Karzai, who once helped channel guns and money to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, has been suddenly airbrushed out of America’s public foreign policy picture, somewhat like an out-of-favour member of the USSR’s Politburo atop Lenin’s tomb.

“It [the Obama administration] needs a strategy to engage Karzai effectively so he will now reach out and broaden the political process to bring in Abdullah and minimise the warlords,” Riedel says of the dilemma facing the White House.

“It is unclear who is going to do this, since Karzai appears to have ruled out working with most of the administration’s team.”

There is famously bad blood between Karzai on the one hand and Joe Biden, the vice-president, and Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan, on the other.

Their apparent crime, writes Ahmed Rashid, a friend of Karzai’s and veteran chronicler of Afghanistan, is to have criticised the Afghan president and government corruption in public.

So the picture that emerges is of an Afghan president preferring not to talk to the senior US representatives, and an Obama administration policy which prefers to pretend Karzai is … simply not there.

Security ‘islands’

That may not necessarily be bad news.

Leaks about Obama’s consultations on Afghanistan suggest he wants to focus the US military effort on protecting civilians (and not killing Taliban fighters) in ten urban areas.

In that scenario, the long-standing jibe of Nato commanders about Karzai – that he is only the “deputy mayor of Kabul” – could turn into a sudden advantage.

Karzai won’t be in the way if and when American generals try to build ten safe urban security “islands” across the country, presumably with the help of local politicians who retain real legitimacy – or at least more so than the president in Kabul.

But that leaves the problem of creating a viable Afghan National Army, one capable of taking up the US-led fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and thereby allowing American troops to exit, heads held high.

No collection of regional power-players can help the US achieve the goal of mentoring and empowering a sizable, credible national army.

That challenge requires talking to Hamid – Hamid Karzai – the Afghan president … remember?

Source: Al Jazeera