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America’s “Awkward Spot” in Afghanistan

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"America’s “Awkward Spot” in Afghanistan"

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Mark Landler and Helene Cooper write about allegations of vote fraud in Afghanistan:

The slim majority tentatively awarded Mr. Karzai in Afghanistan’s fraud-scarred election has put the Obama administration in an awkward spot: trying to balance its professed determination to investigate mounting allegations of corruption and vote-rigging while not utterly alienating the man who seems likely to remain the country’s leader for another five years.

This seems incredibly illogical to me. In one possible universe Hamid Karzai and his government require a large deployment of American forces to prevent the country from being taken over by the Taliban, in which case he seems unlikely to be “alienated” by an investigation of vote-rigging. In another possible universe, Karzai and his government don’t require a large deployment of American forces to prevent the country from being taken over by the Taliban, in which case we ought to be investigating why we’re deploying a large quantity of American forces to Afghanistan. The universe the article inhabits seems to be one in which Karzai and his government require a large deployment of American forces to prevent the country from being taken over by the Taliban, but somehow don’t realize that.

Yet according to the article, U.S. policymakers really feel that the balance of risks is that Karzai might not want to work with us:

Yet the more outside observers complain about fraud, the more alienated Mr. Karzai may become, and the less willing he may be to work with the United States or its allies, administration officials said. “We are still going to probably have to deal with him,” another American official said. “This just makes the morning after a lot more difficult.”

But who cares? If Karzai wants American help against the Taliban, then there’s a reasonable case that we’re obligated to provide it. But why would we be obligated to try to manipulate Karzai into wanting our help? Instead of asking these questions, however, our strategy seems to be focused on micro-managing Afghan politics:

A possible path out of the morass, said another American official, would be if Mr. Karzai and the runner-up, Mr. Abdullah, were able to work out a deal under which Mr. Abdullah, a former Afghan foreign minister, would join the new Karzai government. [...] If there is an advantage to a lengthy inquiry, Mr. Riedel said, it is that it would give Ambassador Eikenberry, a retired general, and other officials time to try to maneuver Mr. Karzai into a bargain with his opponents.

Forming a broader coalition does seem like a reasonable path out of the morass. But again this is a sufficiently obvious point that either Karzai can do it on his own (he’s reconfigured his own coalition a number of times since taking power) or else maybe he can do without it. I think it’s no knock on Karl Eikenberry to suggest that Karzai and Abdullah themselves may be better-positioned to assess the ins-and-outs of intra-Afghan political bargaining than he is. It’s their country and their lives.

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