Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration have traded public insults in recent days, reflecting a relationship that was tense from the start.
But with more than 85,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and President Barack Obama relying on a counter-insurgency strategy to turn around the eight-year war, divorce is not an option.
“This latest flap is just one in a steady stream of events whereby Karzai felt he was getting pressured in ways that are not comfortable,” said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Vice President Joe Biden kicked off a series of tough talks with Karzai soon after Obama was elected, and in a secret memo leaked to The New York Times late last year, Washington’s own ambassador to Kabul tagged Karzai as a “not adequate” partner.
Among his recent criticism, Karzai accused the West of seeking to weaken him and of carrying out election fraud in Afghanistan last year, singling out Washington specifically.
Kabul-based analysts say much of the friction stems from Karzai’s feeling he is not being treated as a true ally and of being lectured to on his own turf by Obama during the U.S. president’s brief visit there last month.
“He is trying to make this issue known that ‘if I am a mercenary, then this country is occupied and if I am a partner, then treat me such,’” said Waheed Mozhdah, a leading analyst who has been in several Afghan governments.
Pro-Karzai parliamentarian Mohammad Noor Akbari agreed. “His viewpoints are reciprocal respect and treatment.”
But U.S. officials argue that to be treated like a true partner, Karzai must follow through on promises he made after last year’s fraud-tainted election, when he pledged to tackle corruption in his second term.
Lisa Curtis, an analyst from the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the United States needed to boost the legitimacy of Karzai’s government to lessen the influence of the Taliban, while at the same time deal with claims of corruption against the Afghan leader and his family.
“It is a bit of a game of chicken but the U.S. really has no choice but to put its money where its mouth is and demand that Karzai act as an effective partner. Otherwise, the mission becomes quite difficult and almost impossible,” said Curtis.
The Obama administration’s response to Karzai’s outbursts reflect that dilemma, with initial reaction muted in order not to further erode confidence in the Afghan leader and play into the hands of his enemies.
But there was also a sense of embarrassment that Karzai chose to launch his attacks so soon after Obama’s trip. When the tirades continued after Karzai telephoned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last Friday, the U.S. tone shifted.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs suggested on Tuesday that a planned meeting between Karzai and Obama on May 12 could be canceled if the Afghan leader’s criticism persisted.
“Our position on this is that when the Afghan leaders take steps to improve governance and root out corruption, then the president will say kind words,” said Gibbs.
BLOW OVER SOON?
The hope is that the war of words will subside soon — just as it did when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had caustic ties with the Bush administration at the height of violence there.
U.S. officials are also banking on Karzai’s outbursts being aimed at a domestic audience that sees him as being propped up by Washington, rather than targeting the Obama administration.
“They are doing their best to try and work with him and shape his calculations. Many see the comments for what they are worth — trying to shore up his domestic political base and save some face for himself personally,” said Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, a liberal U.S. think tank.
But some of Karzai’s critics in Afghanistan say blaming foreigners for his country’s ills only bolsters the militants.
“The utterances embolden the Taliban and al Qaeda,” said Sardar Mohammad Oughli, a lawmaker and critic of Karzai. “We concede that foreigners have committed lots of mistakes, but when we have a poor government, they should not blame the foreigners.”
Either way, experts say there is no option for the United States but to plod along with a relationship that will always be prickly and work more with ministers who tackle corruption and offer services that have been lacking for decades.
“Of course, the Americans say that Karzai does not fit with Obama’s strategy, but sidelining or removing him is not in the interest of America,” said Kabul analyst Mozhdah.