Juliette Kayyem

Let's face up to reality about Karzai

By Juliette Kayyem
June 24, 2011

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EVER SINCE WikiLeaks released thousands of diplomatic cables, exposing the secret thoughts and first-hand accounts of the US diplomatic corps, I have often wondered what the world would be like if ambassadors were simply more frank. It would certainly be more interesting if leaders called each other what they actually thought: corrupt, buffoon, violent, insane, megalomaniac, and, in the case of the Italian Prime Minister, creepy.

While President Obama was preparing to announce the beginnings of another Afghanistan plan, his departing ambassador there, Karl Eikenberry, had a moment of WikiLeaks-style candor. He set the international community ablaze with his unvarnished comments about Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai had spent the previous few weeks offering public expressions of outrage at the United States, charging that nations were in Afghanistan “for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that.’’

It may have been Karzai’s implied threat — the United States is an occupier, and that “history has shown how Afghans deal with occupiers’’ — that unhinged Eikenberry. (In case anyone forgot, Karzai is supposed to be an American ally.) Eikenberry’s retort — essentially, “you ungrateful brute” — was heralded as a moment of clarity and honesty in a dangerous relationship.

“When we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, and our generous aid programs dismissed as totally ineffective and the source of all corruption, our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on,’’ Eikenberry thundered, in remarks directly squarely at Karzai.

Those words, heard around the world (though barely reported in the United States), finally expressed the exasperation that so many US policymakers have felt toward the Afghan president. But why do we care what Karzai thinks about us? It would be nice to be loved, but why is that relevant to our strategy? It’s not. If we have to be honest with ourselves, the last time we got any real gratitude for a military occupation, Hitler and Tojo were involved.

The revelation in Eikenberry’s comments is not what the Afghan government thinks about us, but what we think about them. And in that regard, even Eikenberry’s frank statements didn’t go far enough. Because if we were prepared to be brutally honest about what we think about Karzai — that he’s corrupt beyond the pale, has wasted billions on reconstruction and community development, and can’t sustain his nation-building without US assistance — then we might think about the Afghan engagement differently.

Karzai is playing a game, with us and his people. To his people, he masks his failures as a leader and unifier by claiming that the bad old United States and NATO are killing civilians. But Karzai also knows very well that his regime probably wouldn’t survive beyond a withdrawal of US and NATO troops. So he welcomes our lingering commitment to his country, because without him, he warns us, the Taliban and Al Qaeda would be in charge.

In fact, we can live without Karzai; we don’t have a vital interest in a specific individual ruling Afghanistan. We cannot tie our continuing military engagement to a man whose only attribute is that he isn’t the Taliban. Troops are dying in alarming numbers, coupled with the billion-dollars-a-month investment in a war that is now longer than Vietnam.

The outcome of this war is not going to be solved by varying the troop numbers that President Obama disclosed on Wednesday. After 10 years, with steadily rising troop levels, all the gains remain fragile. And Obama’s speech disclosed little about how these gains could be solidified.

Nonetheless, Obama made an important pivot in his speech on Wednesday night: Success is no longer defined by stability in Afghanistan. It is by fighting terrorism and preventing the rebirth of Al Qaeda. Skepticism about the long engagement in Afghanistan by members of both parties has been described as war fatigue. After 10 years, the exhaustion is understandable. But for all the criticism that Obama has tried to satisfy too many domestic and international stakeholders at once, Obama may have had an audience of only one.

But you didn’t hear his name. Obama never uttered the word Karzai. Not exactly a WikiLeaks moment, but if I were Karzai, I might be wondering “What does he think about me?”

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at or Twitter @juliettekayyem.