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Karzai’s temper tantrum

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Kathleen Parker
April 11, 2010
— Paging Dr. Khalilzad.

That is, Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and now a wandering consultant on all things Afghan and Middle Eastern. Might we impose on him one more time?


Khalilzad is not a real physician, but to the extent that he has apparent healing powers, he is a doctor of diplomacy. He came to mind unavoidably in recent days, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai seemed to be sporting a lighted fuse from the top of his jaunty Persian lamb cap.


First Karzai accused the West and the United Nations of orchestrating the voter fraud of which his own followers have been charged. Next he blustered that if foreign occupiers didn’t start showing a little more respect, well, he just might join the Taliban himself.


One is inclined initially to hope that this, like all tantrums, will pass as the mood changes or as other distractions prevail. Parental patience is indeed called for, but ancient wisdom may be more to the point. The sort of wisdom that perhaps only a fellow Afghan can bring to the dinner table of a man who is under siege, exhausted and obviously emotionally strained.


Whatever his flaws, Karzai has reason for his pique. Lately he has become a target of everyone from Barack Obama, who came out swinging even on the campaign trail, to European parliamentarians. Add to those strains external pressures from the Taliban and Iran, and you have a formula for meltdown.


It’s deal-cutting time for Karzai, and with whom he deals may well depend on how the Obama administration treats him.


The consensus from Kabul is that Obama can treat Karzai firmly in private, but with respect in public. This has not always been the case.


Karzai still stings, I’m told, from a formal dinner in 2008 when then-Sen. Joe Biden threw down his napkin, pushed back his chair and left the room. Relations with the Obama administration began badly when Karzai learned indirectly from a political rival who the new U.S. ambassador would be, rather than from the secretary of state or sitting ambassador, as is customary. Perceived hostility from special envoy Richard Holbrooke has been a constant rub.


The corruption targeted by Obama, Holbrooke and others isn’t in dispute. Voter fraud can’t be tolerated. But Karzai’s problems are systemic rather than personal. Whether Karzai deserves our respect is secondary to whether we need him to be effective as president of his country. Given the circumstances, wouldn’t it be wiser to support Karzai rather than further cause him to feel impotent?


Obama’s recent meeting, off record and away from cameras, may have helped as a gesture of cooperation. But reports from inside Afghanistan via my own sources are that Karzai felt lectured to. We all know the feeling.


Enter Khalilzad, who was ambassador from 2003 to 2005, a relative Golden Age for U.S.-Karzai relations. What was different then was that Khalilzad kept the bad guys at bay and helped Karzai stay focused. Khalilzad told me that he and Karzai dined together six nights a week during his diplomatic tenure.


Alas, Khalilzad did too good a job and was sent to Iraq in 2005 with orders to find another Karzai. George W. Bush’s subsequent weekly videoconferences apparently were no substitute for Khalilzad’s magic.


It seems clear that the emotional/psychological support that protected Karzai from his own demons—and from the several flaming swords he was trying to juggle—was withdrawn to the detriment of his leadership and our mission.


Our official thinking now seems to be to bypass Karzai and manage the counterinsurgency on the district level. Experts disagree on whether this is workable, but a consensus surely would form around the better option of operating in cooperation with a legitimate sitting government.


Meanwhile, our own expectations bear tweaking. Afghanistan won’t become a thriving democracy anytime soon, but, as Jeff Gedmin, president of Radio Free Europe notes, it can become a nation with a modicum of respect for human rights and the rule of law. The rebuilding and, in some cases, the creation of institutions is under way. Enormous progress has been made in a relatively short time considering what life was like under the Taliban.


Our mission remains to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorists, an achievable goal if our military is successful in emasculating, if not defeating, the Taliban. Karzai can be helpful in that pursuit, but, like all of us, he could use a good shrink.


Shouldn’t the White House be paging Khalilzad?


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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