U.S. Must Back Karzai--Flaws and All

The weekend withdrawal by President Hamid Karzai's opponent from the planned re-run of the Afghanistan elections doesn't just clarify politics in Kabul. It ought to have a similar effect in Washington.

Barack Obama's agony in deciding whether to provide Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal with the troops he thinks he needs to conduct a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan has indeed begun to look like dithering. Not just to former Vice President Cheney but to leaders of NATO--yes, while the war is being "Americanized" we still have allies who are fighting just as hard and paying a proportionately painful price in blood. Of all the objections raised by anti-surge factions in the administration, the one that's had the most resonance is that the Karzai government's corruption makes it an unfit partner in counterinsurgency.

That still may prove true. But it's now clear that, whatever his shortcomings, Karzai is the man we have to work with. The question is now how to rebuild a trustworthy partnership, not just between him and us but between him and his people.

It will take years to jump-start the building of a larger Afghan army and police, and our NATO allies simply lack the wherewithal to surge in the numbers needed.

Karzai was once eager to do the right thing, willing to take risks, including risks to his life, to realize the dream that most Afghans have of rebuilding their country and beginning to catch up with the centuries of history that have passed them by. Modern Afghanistan is much more the victim of its recent politics, most of all the decades of Soviet occupation, the civil war that followed and the victory and repressive rule of the Taliban, than its traditional culture.

As it gradually came clear that the Bush administration's economy-of-force approach to Kabul represented a counterterrorism strategy focused exclusively on al Qaeda rather than a counterinsurgency strategy that began with the Taliban, Karzai's calculus almost inevitably changed. He did not have enough power, particularly enough military power, to be any more than one player among many in Afghanistan. Key Bush decisions to limit the size of the Afghan National Army, go slow on building police forces and, most of all, trying to offload Afghanistan on the Europeans, were seen as indicators of American withdrawal. Nor was Karzai the only one: Pakistan saw it the same way. Those in the region went back to hedging their bets.

That's the default mode in the region. The pattern of our behavior going back through the Cold War, but crystallized after the Soviet war, suggested that, sooner or later, Americans would lose interest. This, indeed, is the heart of the Taliban's strategy.

Our treatment of Karzai has exacerbated the situation. The leaders of the Obama administration--particularly but not only Vice President Biden--have been complaining about him even before the 2008 U.S. election. They've long looked like they wanted to throw Karzai under the bus.

But unlike Jeremiah Wright or Van Jones, Karzai didn't stay down. He may have rigged an election, but that doesn't mean he didn't win it, and, more importantly, it's clear that he remains the most powerful Afghan actor. Abdullah Abdullah, the man who withdrew from the runoff, had no realistic chance of unseating Karzai.

So what should we do to make the most of the situation?

The best medicine would be to militarily win back the initiative from the Taliban, and McChrystal's plan is the most certain way to turn things around, though as the general's sober assessment indicated, this is only the least-bad choice. What will make Karzai legitimate--meaning to Afghan villagers, not American pundits--is bringing some security to his war-ravaged land. Yes, Karzai must establish incorrupt justice, but first of all there must be order.

This is something that United States, NATO and Afghan troops are capable of achieving. Indeed, in the near term, it's something that only an infusion of American soldiers and Marines can accomplish; it will take years to jump-start the building of a larger Afghan army and police, and our NATO allies simply lack the wherewithal to surge in the numbers needed.

No doubt this is a painful truth for President Obama, as it would be for any American president and as it was for President Bush in Iraq in 2007. A commander in chief must always carefully weigh the decision to put troops in harm's way.

But this is a moment of truth that could hardly be more clear: we must go to war--recommit ourselves to war--with the partners we've got, not necessarily the ones we'd like to have.

Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI.

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