War Stories

Karzai Salesman

How John Kerry got the Afghan leader to see sense.

Richard Holbrooke 

Sen. John Kerry’s successful mission to Kabul —in which he convinced Afghan President Hamid Karzai to hold a second-round runoff to August’s fraud-soaked election—suggests that the Obama administration is putting the squeeze on Karzai to clean up his act as a precondition to getting more U.S. troops to help fight his war.

The squeeze was subtler—or, at least quieter—than the yelling sessions that AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke and Vice President Joe Biden—both famously voluble characters—have held with Karzai in recent months.

Yet a chronology of Kerry’s “shuttle diplomacy” pieced together by ABC News shows the Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee meeting with Karzai six times, some sessions for hours at a stretch, during a five-day trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan Oct. 16-20—each visit at the behest of, and in consultation with, Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

They and President Barack Obama clearly understand that without either a runoff election or some power-sharing arrangement with the runner-up, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan is all but doomed.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wrote in his famously leaked memo to Obama, a counterinsurgency campaign must “provide for the needs of the population by, with, and through the Afghan government” (his italics). This can’t be done if the Afghan government is widely seen by its own people as illegitimate—which Karzai’s regime certainly would be were he simply to declare himself re-elected and stay in power.

An international commission, backed by all of Afghanistan’s Western allies, has ruled that nearly one out of every three ballots cast in the Aug. 20 presidential election was fraudulent. With those ballots removed from the count, it turns out that Karzai won just less than 50 percent of the vote—a situation that, under the Afghan Constitution, requires a second-round runoff.

Karzai initially rejected the commission’s findings. Over the course of his first five meetings with Kerry, he switched back and forth between accepting and deriding the verdict—until, finally, after the sixth meeting on Tuesday, he finally acceded to the pressure and agreed to a runoff on Nov. 7.

Of course, this might not be the end of the story. Karzai could waver once again. Many wonder whether a safe, honest election can be organized so quickly, given the Taliban’s continued warnings that they will kill anyone who votes (especially in the southern part of the country) and the continued presence of corrupt election officials (though Karzai has reportedly fired some of them).

These uncertainties have led some to prefer a power-sharing agreement between Karzai and Abdullah. Abdullah has said he might go along with such a scheme. This might ease the way to legitimate rule—or it might alienate Karzai’s backers, especially in the southern Pashtun districts where the Taliban have made the heaviest inroads. (It is further doubtful that any Afghan leader can keep power without Pashtun support. Abdullah is half-Tajik; should he win a runoff, it’s possible that his government would be seen as even less legitimate, at least in Pashtun circles, than Karzai’s is now.)

The ideal solution, from the U.S. point of view, would be for Karzai to win an honest, well-attended runoff election.

But no official can say this publicly, especially after the hissy fits thrown, however justifiably, by Holbrooke and Biden in their earlier meetings with Karzai. Holbrooke’s yelling session took place in August, when he accused Karzai of tilting the election results. Since then, Holbrooke has kept a low profile on Afghanistan.

Ditto for Biden, whose moment of pique came early last year, when he was still a senator, on a trip to Kabul with a few Capitol Hill colleagues. Over dinner, Karzai repeatedly denied charges of corruption inside his government—until, finally, Biden threw down his napkin, shouted, “This dinner is over,” and walked out.

Under the circumstances, neither Holbrooke nor Biden would be the best agent to carry a firm message for Karzai from Obama to get with the program.

Enter Kerry, who can be viewed as a somewhat independent player—close to, but not formally a part of, the Obama administration—whose style is the farthest thing from brash.

Politically, Karzai cannot afford to look as though he’s buckling to foreign pressure. If he goes along with a runoff election, he has to make it seem that the decision was his alone. Pressure from an outside power can work only if it’s applied with discretion and respect. Kerry, who was on a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan anyway, was the right man for the mission.

Now what?

Kerry has said, both before and after the trip, that Obama should put off any decision about whether to send more troops until after the runoff. To make such a momentous decision without knowing the nature of the Afghan government—the partner to our counterinsurgency campaign—would be irresponsible, Kerry said.

On the other side, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, said today that Obama should make his decision before the Nov. 7 runoff—a senseless sentiment on the face of things and confirmation that Lieberman and others like him simply want to box Obama into escalating the war without examining the costs, risks, and benefits.

Obama appears to be in accord with Kerry on this question, saying that even if he decides on a strategy for Afghanistan before the runoff, he may not announce it until after.

If Karzai does win a runoff, or strikes a power-sharing deal with Abdullah, that’s a vital prerequisite but still just the first step to achieving legitimacy—and thus making a counterinsurgency campaign even theoretically worth waging.

Gen. McChrystal and several other senior officers—including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command—have said that corruption is no less threatening than the Taliban to the stability of Afghanistan.

So if he is fairly re-elected, Karzai would have to take steps—given the astonishing depths of the problem, heroic steps—to clean up the corruption, including the replacement of lots of ministers, governors, and members of his own entourage.

Here, too, the West, especially the United States, has to apply the pressure.

President Obama is scheduled to travel to Asia on Nov. 11. He should make Kabul one of his stops. A former military officer who consults the administration on Afghanistan (and therefore asked not to be identified) has a modest proposal for his agenda.

Obama, he says, should give Karzai a poster-size photograph of Mohammad Najibullah hanging from a lamp post in 1996. Najibullah, of course, was Afghanistan’s last democratic president before the Taliban killed him and took over.

If you don’t take the following 10 reform measures, Obama should tell him, this picture could be of you. That is to say, without serious reforms, your government won’t gain legitimacy, and the Taliban won’t be stopped.

Yet, Obama should continue, if you do take the following 10 reform measures, here are 10 things that I, the president of the United States, will do for you.

There is a catch: One of those 10 things that Obama has to do is to send more U.S. troops—probably about as many as Gen. McChrystal wants.

This is the game that Obama is about to enter: If Karzai takes the risks of reforming his government (and there are enormous risks in that), then Obama has to take the risks of helping him succeed.