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Gates Sheds New Light on Obama’s Afghan Dysfunctions


My last post noted how the blockbuster memoir by Robert M. Gates reinforces the points many observers have made about the defects of the Obama administration’s national security process.  The revelations also bolster my own argument that President Obama and his team share a good deal of the responsibility for the ongoing crisis in relations between Washington and Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul.  The discord goes far in explaining Karzai’s current posture of defiance that has led him to put on hold a long-term security agreement with Washington and release dozens of prisoners that U.S. officials claim are dangerous Taliban insurgents.

To be sure, Karzai is a miserable war-time ally.  Erratic and immanently suspicious, he regularly uses the foreign governments propping up his regime as convenient scapegoats for his own numerous failings.  To cite but one example among his many egregious antics: His excoriations of Washington were so vehement last spring that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan worried they would stoke attacks on Western troops by rogue Afghan soldiers or even prompt assaults on NATO installations by Afghan army units.

Nonetheless, as Gates’s account illustrates, the Obama administration’s bumblings have made a bad situation much worse.  First, not only did the Obama team conspicuously fail to put much effort into cultivating strong bonds with Karzai, it seemed determined to compound the Afghan leader’s reasons for distrust.  The problems started even before Mr. Obama entered the Oval Office.  In February 2008, Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Kabul, only to angrily storm out of a private dinner when Karzai refused to accept accusations that his government was mired in corruption.  This was followed by Obama’s July 2008 trip to Afghanistan, when the then-presidential candidate made the amateurish mistake of meeting first with one of Karzai’s political rivals.  The episode was a serious gaffe, needlessly antagonizing the deeply insecure Afghan leader and setting the tone for the administration’s strained ties with him.

Things were also not helped in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s election, when the incoming president waited a full month before reaching out to Karzai and Mr. Biden then brusquely informed him that the easy access to the Oval Office he enjoyed under President Bush was now over.

But pivotal to the antagonistic relationship with Karzai is the Obama administration’s maladroit efforts to line up alternative candidates in the 2009 Afghan presidential election.  In his new book, Gates writes that this attempt amounted to a ‘clumsy and failed putsch” orchestrated by the late-Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy on AfPak affairs, and Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul from 2009-2011.  U.S. interference in the election process was so blatant that it drew the ire of Kai Eide, the UN special representative in Afghanistan.  And more than four years after the event, Karzai is still fuming about it.

The keepers of Holbrooke’s memory (here and here) contend that he might just  have saved the day in Afghanistan have he not been kneecapped by petty and narrow-minded White House staffers.  It’s true that Holbrooke was treated shabbily by the White House, starting with President Obama himself, and that the sophomoric turf battles derailed key diplomatic initiatives.  But Holbrooke’s starring role in the “failed putsch” also meant that he had quickly forfeited his effectiveness vis-à-vis Karzai, who put out the word that he was finished dealing with Holbrooke.  It was left to then-Senator John F. Kerry, who has a stronger personal connection with the Afghan leader, to pick up the pieces with Kabul (see here and here) – previewing the role he played a few months ago when as Secretary of State he revived the floundering negotiations for a bilateral security agreement.

(A side note: The Obama administration’s intervention in the Afghan election and its consequences has a parallel with its efforts to play kingmaker when the March 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq produced no clear outcome.  Seeking to end the resulting political crisis, the White House, led by Vice President Biden, crafted a power-sharing arrangement that kept Nuri al-Maliki in place as prime minister.  Maliki quickly reneged on the deal though, further riling the country’s Sunni and Kurdish elites.  One casualty was the long-term security accord with Baghdad – similar to the one now hanging fire in Kabul – that Mr. Biden guaranteed he could negotiate with Maliki.  Useful background here and here.)

The second way the Obama administration seriously undermined relations with Karzai was by sending decidedly mixed signals about its commitment to the Afghan conflict.  Mr. Obama coupled his military surge in Afghanistan with a public notice of its expiration date, thereby handing the Taliban a major incentive to wait out the Americans.  The dissents that Biden made internally about the war have been allowed to seep out, particularly his contention that the Taliban insurgents waging war against Karzai’s regime were not really America’s concern.  And Biden’s remarks during his electoral debate a year ago with Paul Ryan – “We are leaving [Afghanistan] in 2014, period” – were so emphatic that they seemed to undercut the administration’s professions about its long-term commitment to Kabul.

President Obama once termed the Afghan conflict as “the war we have to win.  We do not have an option.”  But as Mr. Gates notes in his book, Mr. Obama’s heart never seemed in it.  Gates writes he came to realize a few months after the troop surge and the counter-insurgency strategy guiding it were unveiled in December 2009, that the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.  For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Gates’s conclusion echoes points made by Holbrooke and Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul in 2005-07.  David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Timesreported last year that Holbrooke could never tell whether Obama really desired a diplomatic settlement of the Afghan conflict or simply wanted to exit the country as quickly as possible.  And Mr. Neumann, commenting a year ago on Mr. Obama’s Afghan policy, argued that …

… The greatest single contribution that America could make to having [the Afghan conflict] come out a little better rather than a little worse is clarity about our own purpose.  Right now we lack that clarity.  I can’t, sitting here, tell you whether I believe that this administration is actually committed to trying to make the Afghan army as good as it can be in the next two years or whether we’re simply trying to look for a decent interval while we dump that.  If I can’t tell you, it’s not surprising that Afghans can’t tell you.

Mr. Obama now takes pride that he is winding down “a decade of war” and focusing “on nation-building here at home.”  It’s certainly a position consonant with U.S. public sentiment, which presently regards the Afghan conflict as themost unpopular war in American history.  But as Mr. Gates underscores, Obama’s conduct of the conflict he once trumpeted as a “war of necessity”does not reflect well on him at all.

This commentary is cross-posted on Monsters Abroad.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.