Will the U.S. Stick By Karzai in Afghanistan?

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Shah Marai / AFP / Getty

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

President Hamid Karzai may have been installed and may be maintained in power by the U.S. and its NATO allies, but the relationship between them continues to sour — and that could have significant consequences for the Obama Administration's plans to win the war in Afghanistan. Thursday's announcement postponing Afghanistan's presidential election from April to August means that Karzai will remain in office as a new U.S. plan for Afghanistan goes into effect, even though U.S. and NATO commanders have long warned that the rampant corruption and inefficiency of the Karzai government are undermining the war effort. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently wrote in the Washington Post that "the problem in Afghanistan is not too much Taliban; it's too little good governance" and warned bluntly that the alliance expects Karzai to do a better job. Vice President Joe Biden visited Kabul shortly before the Inauguration and reportedly warned Karzai that the new Administration would hold his feet to the fire over governance complaints. (See pictures of soldiers in Afghanistan.)

Despite Western disillusionment with Karzai, there's no sign thus far that Washington believes Afghanistan's fledgling democracy might produce a more capable successor. But pressure on Karzai from Washington — and even the planned "surge" of three new U.S. combat brigades into Afghanistan starting this summer — may set the U.S. on a collision course with its client in Kabul. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned during congressional testimony this week that the U.S. would have to narrow its objectives, abandoning any ideas of turning Afghanistan into "a Central Asian Valhalla." The immediate priority of the Administration's new war plan for Afghanistan is simply to stop the Taliban's momentum.

Today, the radical militia dispersed by the U.S. invasion in late 2001 is back with a vengeance, able to operate freely in much of the countryside and moving closer to the major cities. And as the Taliban well knows, in a rural society dominated by local warlords, the impression of military might functions as a force multiplier: back in 1996, the Taliban (with extensive backing from the Pakistani military) raced across Afghanistan to seize power in Kabul by trouncing mujahedin rivals in a few early battles and then simply allowing word of their military prowess and momentum to discourage further resistance. Most of the warlords along the Taliban's path to Kabul simply threw in their lot with what seemed to be an unstoppable force. (See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)

Now the Taliban is telling Afghans that history will eventually repeat itself and that NATO will go the way of all foreign armies in Afghanistan. That's why breaking the Taliban's stride by inflicting some painful battlefield defeats appears to be the key strategic goal of Gates' Afghanistan surge, in which combat brigades comprising some 12,000 troops will be added to the 36,000 currently deployed there. Those troops will be used to strengthen the approaches to some of the country's major cities and to go toe-to-toe with insurgents in the south and east in order to demonstrate that a Taliban victory is far from inevitable. Karzai has been cool to any addition of foreign troops and has urged that if they do come, they should be deployed along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But Karzai's preferences are unlikely to decide the issue: the New York Times reports that "the Obama Administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government" in order to reinforce stepped-up combat efforts. (See pictures of Pakistan's vulnerable North-West passage.)

Karzai, for his part, appears inclined to align himself with growing numbers of Afghans who are hostile to the Western military presence in his country by, if not quite biting, then at least snapping at the hand that feeds and protects him. He opened parliament on Jan. 23 with a speech that included a blistering attack on the conduct of the U.S.-led war, complaining that Washington and its allies are undermining the Afghan government by ignoring its authority, and accusing them of patronizing warlords and overlooking the corruption and waste in their own aid programs. Earlier this month, Karzai's ambassador to the U.N., Zahir Tanin, told the Security Council of Afghanistan's "grave concern" over coalition military tactics there, calling on the coalition to minimize use of air strikes and coordinate its actions with the Afghan government.

Karzai, of course, may simply be grandstanding with a view to bolstering his support ahead of the election. It was rescheduled, after all, because security conditions preclude holding a credible poll, and unless the Taliban is rolled back in much of the south and east of the country, even an August poll would remain in doubt — despite the fact that Karzai's term of office ends in May. But the criticisms he raises resonate with much of the Afghan public, which is particularly angered by air strikes that often inflict civilian casualties. Arming local warlords to fight the Taliban, Karzai warns, has had a disastrous effect in the recent past and would most likely reinforce Afghanistan's anarchic trend. Distancing himself from the counterinsurgency war in his country may be a calculated election strategy on Karzai's part. He could also seek to bolster his position by reaching out to other key neighborhood players such as India, Iran and Russia, all of which have good reason to back him against the Taliban, particularly — in the case of Moscow and Tehran — if he established more independence from Washington.

Until now, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has been about propping up the Karzai government and security forces and beating back the Taliban. Plainly, that strategy has been failing, and Washington and Karzai appear to have different ideas about how to fix it. The Afghan President may seek to appear as if he's emulating his Iraqi counterparts by pushing back against those who brought him to power, but it's a far trickier game for Karzai, who lacks the alternatives available to an Iraqi government that remains close to Iran. Right now, Karzai's physical survival depends largely on the NATO presence.

The U.S., meanwhile, is mindful of the growing burden that results from the Taliban's resurgence and the reluctance of NATO allies to boost their own troop levels in Afghanistan. That's why Gates is calling for a revision of what he called "overly ambitious" nation-building goals, stressing that he sees the prime U.S. objective in Afghanistan as preventing the country from being used as a base for terrorists. The question facing Washington, of course, is whether Karzai is indispensable to the achievement of that goal.

Read "How to Save Afghanistan."

See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.