David McKean

Obama’s mixed message to Karzai

By David McKean
May 11, 2010

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FORTY-SEVEN YEARS ago, President Kennedy and his top advisers anguished over the unfolding conflict in Vietnam and especially the weak and corrupt leadership of President Ngo Dinh Diem. As South Vietnamese generals plotted, US State Department officials — without direct approval from the president, the secretary of state, or the secretary of defense — sent “Cable 243,’’ which called for the removal of Diem and threatened US support of a military coup in Vietnam.

While the circumstances in Afghanistan today are different than they were in Vietnam, the questions of strong leadership and a reliable partner remain central to the eventual outcome. President Obama and his top advisers are anguished over President Hamid Karzai.

General Stanley McChrystal, the leader of US forces in Afghanistan, has proved that the troops can provide security for the Afghan people. With relatively few losses, US forces entered the district of Marjah in southern Afghanistan and cleared it of the Taliban. Using the strategy of warning the Taliban to leave or be killed, they are now preparing a similar advance on the much larger and more dangerous city of Kandahar.

McCrystal understands how critical good governance is to achieving the American goal of ultimately passing control of the war to Afghan authorities. This is at the core of the strategy and timetable that President Obama laid out last December. It is also the biggest challenge.

President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali, is the main power broker in Kandahar and is reputed to have strong ties to the opium trade. Karzai has shown no inclination to rein in his brother, which raises tough questions about how Kandahar would be run assuming coalition troops clean out the insurgents in the coming weeks.

In March, Obama sent a strong message to Karzai and called off a proposed trip to the United States by the Afghan leader. But, then, underscoring that the United States has few options, Obama secretly traveled to Kabul to convey the message that, while reform needs to happen, the United States will not abandon Afghanistan. The signal will be reinforced this week with Karzai visiting Washington.

The mixed message may have fallen on deaf ears since it’s not entirely clear that the Obama administration has significant leverage over Karzai, who has recently lashed out at the United States, even threatening to invite the Taliban back into his country.

Karzai is a flawed leader, but the administration knew that when the president announced his policy last December. Karzai has now been elected twice, albeit under questionable circumstances, and there is little to be gained by publicly upbraiding him.

However, Karzai’s criticism of the United States may help him to be perceived less as a puppet of the United States, and more as a national leader. That’s undoubtedly a good thing for him and us.

It’s true that Karzai’s influence doesn’t extend much beyond Kabul. Some suggest that the United States should cut deals with local officials, cabinet officials, warlords, provincial governors — whoever will work with America and its allies. While a patchwork of governance might work in the short run, it is unlikely to survive long-term.

The United States could find itself in the awkward position of having invested billions of dollars in building up a national army and police force yet promoting a weak central government. This kind of asymmetry could lead to one of two outcomes: the army would split apart and revert to the kind of feudal arrangement that characterized Afghanistan for centuries or a military coup could take place — as happened in Vietnam four decades ago. If that were to occur, Obama might look back just as the Kennedys did to examine how decisions they made unleashed forces that they were not able to control.

Parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan are sometimes overdrawn. In its dealings with Karzai, however, the administration would do well to remember the consequences of failing to control Diem’s greed and corruption: The Vietnamese leader was assassinated and the United States lost more than 50,000 troops in a losing war.

David McKean, former staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is chief executive of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

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