Can the U.S. Win in a Karzai-Led Afghanistan?

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Mark Wilson / Getty

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama after trilateral talks at the White House

President Barack Obama came into office believing that President Hamid Karzai's government was a liability to the pursuit of U.S. goals in Afghanistan. On the campaign trail, Obama had identified corruption and failure to deliver services and security as reasons to doubt Karzai's ability to convince Afghans that the war against the Taliban was worth fighting. Still, Obama declared Afghanistan "the good war" and bet his presidency on winning it. He could soon have regrets about hitching his political fortunes so closely to a country on the brink of failure.

On Nov. 2, the 2½ month saga of the fraud-tainted Afghan presidential election was finally resolved as Karzai was declared the winner after his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from a runoff race that he said would not be fair. Abdullah continues to insist that Karzai's re-election was illegitimate, underscoring the fact that the election's outcome leaves Obama saddled with an Afghan partner who is even more discredited than he was at its onset. News from the battlefront is equally grim. October saw the highest monthly death toll of U.S. soldiers since the war began, and on Nov. 3 five British soldiers were killed when fired on by an Afghan policeman — it is still unclear if the shooter was a Taliban plant.

Obama on Nov. 2 called to congratulate Karzai but cautioned the Afghan President that "this has to be a point in time in which we begin to write a new chapter based on improved governance, a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption, joint efforts to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces so that the Afghan people can provide for their own security," Obama told journalists afterward.

Karzai on Nov. 3 admitted that "Afghanistan's image has been tainted by corruption." Speaking at his first press conference since his re-election was confirmed, he said, "We will strive, by any means possible, to eradicate this stain." But while his speech was big on promises, many Afghans fear little will change. As Karzai spoke, he was flanked by his new Vice President, Marshal Fahim, a warlord accused of several human-rights violations and whose selection by Karzai as a running mate caused consternation in the West. Just a few hours earlier, Abdul Rashid Dostum, another notorious warlord who had been temporarily exiled from Afghanistan for egregious acts of defiance against the government, returned in triumph to Kabul. His substantial support for Karzai during the election had earned Dostum a reprieve from judicial action and reinstatement to his former position as chief of staff to the army head. "Look at this government," laments Fahim Dashty, editor of the Kabul Weekly newspaper. "It is led by warlords and crooks. You can imagine what that means for our future."

Karzai's re-election casts doubt over the prospects for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to achieve its goals. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, insists that the war cannot be won unless there is an effective government in place to partner with Western troops and grow the Afghan security forces. Now Obama is forced to make his decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan in the knowledge that the mission's Afghan partner for the foreseeable future will be one whose ability to deliver has long been questioned, even by Obama. And this at a moment when U.S. public support for the war is dwindling — yet Obama's being seen to withdraw in defeat could also be politically devastating to the Democratic Administration.

"We will know within the first one to two months by what the President does if he is serious about taking the country out of this situation," says Hekmat Karzai, director of the Kabul-based Center for Conflict and Peace Studies and a relative of the President who says he is politically independent. Key indicators, says Karzai, will be how the President deals with corruption charges against political allies and keeps his supporters accountable; the ministers he appoints; and the governors he chooses to replace.

John Dempsey, a Kabul-based analyst for the U.S. Institute of Peace, is doubtful that a new Karzai administration will make the necessary changes. "Everyone knows that Karzai is self-interested and corrupt," says Dempsey. "Of course he is a kind man who cares, and who wants the best for Afghanistan, but that is not his paramount concern. His paramount concern is making sure that he and his cronies are enriching themselves and are in positions of power. Afghanistan comes second."

The key factor holding Karzai's feet to the fire, though, may be the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and his dependence on foreign troops for his physical survival. "I think [President] Karzai understands that he has to make changes to maintain an international commitment," says Hekmat Karzai. "He is also concerned about his legacy. If his presidency is going to be one that Afghans remember fondly, then clearly there has to be some issues he has to deal with."

The end of the election limbo allows Karzai and his Western partners to move forward. In three weeks, he will announce his cabinet choices and begin work on important security, economic and governance issues that had been put on hold during the election. And that will also provide an opportunity for the Obama Administration to use the leverage offered by Afghanistan's security and economic dependency to press Karzai to do better. "If we can start pressuring him to start cracking down on high-profile criminals and drug traffickers to show that he actually cares about rule of law, then he starts gaining legitimacy," says Dempsey. "Afghanistan is still going to be a basket case five years from now, but at least the perception that the head leadership is trying to move the country in the right direction will give people faith."

Afghan faith in the future offered by Karzai's government is the key to the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. That faith will be more important than the strength of his electoral mandate in determining the fate of Karzai's presidency — and quite possibly that of Obama's too.