Foreign Policy Blogs

From Tough Love to Bear Hugs


It wasn’t long ago I wrote a piece titled ‘Obama-Karzai: Fighting Alone in a Locked Room‘ and now look at where we are….hugs and kisses of the political flavor are all the rage. The Obama administration has literally and figuratively rolled out the red carpet for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his entourage and relations appear on the mend.

From day one of his presidency, Obama let it be known that Afghanistan was the key conflict, not Iraq, and that he was going to hold President Karzai to a higher standard than President Bush was thought to have done. Tough love, or downright disapproval, was shown in varying ways (attempts to help presidential rivals during last years election, a stop to the weekly teleconferences, public rebukes, etc), but Karzai fought back (won reelection, kept his brother in ‘charge’ of Kandahar, threatened to join the insurgency, etc.). The one element that didn’t change was that both of these leaders needed the other and that is why we are seeing them both outreach a friendly hand. Karzai wrote a positive op-ed in the Washington Post thanking America for its sacrifices and visited Walter Reed Hospital. The Obama administration has given the Afghan leadership a full day of its time in the White House, held a joint press conference where President Obama reiterated the importance of their partnership, and tomorrow Karzai gets a one-on-one walk with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Karzai and his government need the US to survive and Obama and the US need to make some headway against the extremist elements embedded in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both sides are in many ways on borrowed time to makes this work. President Obama’s troop surge strategy came with an ‘opt-out’ date starting July 2011 and the US will want to see significant improvement in the stability and capability of Karzai-led governance, specifically regarding providing security to the Afghan populace. Obama’s efforts to play hardball with Karzai have proved ineffective and to their credit the administration is changing tactics. Karzai is freshly elected (though with illegitimacy issues) and will be in our partner in this challenging conflict for years to come. In other words, it is difficult to see the US/NATO succeeding without Karzai doing the same. Tough love will surely continue and should, but it should be mostly behind closed doors.

Negotiations with elements of the insurgency are on the horizon with the US appearing to hold Karzai back a bit until further military progress is made on the ground. This is a wise move and one that can be furthered by what is currently happening in DC right now, the building up of the Karzai administration. The reconcilable factions of the Taliban-led insurgency need to know that Karzai’s word in negotiations has the US’s strong backing otherwise they will just continue to fight and wait the situation out. Tying itself to Karzai is far from an ideal situation for the US and Obama administration, but it appears to be the best bet in a sketchy casino.

(Photo Source: New York Times)