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The Monitor's View

The Obama-Karzai quarrel over Afghanistan sovereignty

In his public disagreement with Karzai at the NATO summit in Lisbon, Obama gave a hint of his inclination to act unilaterally for US interests. He needs to reveal more of his reasoning.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / November 22, 2010



President Obama has yet to be fully tested – as recent presidents have – over how much he would violate another country’s sovereignty for the sake of American interests.

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But he came close to defining that critical line for himself this past weekend.

At the NATO summit in Lisbon, Mr. Obama engaged in an open quarrel with Hamid Karzai, the elected president of Afghanistan, over which leader is now really in charge of security in that country – once the home of Al Qaeda training camps and still under threat from the Taliban.

In the end, the two leaders seemed to patch up their rather public disagreement. They agreed to a renewed UN-approved pact that permits US-led NATO forces to lead the fight against the Taliban until at least 2014.

But not before each leader made a claim for authority over determining Afghanistan’s future.

Mr. Karzai resents the fact that his fledgling democratic government cannot veto certain NATO methods, such as night raids on Afghan homes in search of Taliban fighters – raids that sometimes terrorize a household or result in civilian casualties.

And he dislikes the fact that so many foreign workers operate outside his government’s control. To him, the 1,500 workers in the US Embassy in Kabul seem like the reigning rulers.

At first, Obama appeared to sympathize, saying Karzai is “eager to reassert full sovereignty.” But then he pointed out that the United States won’t allow Al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan, that the US is spending billions to develop the country, and that more NATO troops would be killed without the use of forceful tactics like night raids. (The latter have been successful against the Taliban.)

“We have to listen and learn,” Obama said. “But he’s got to listen to us as well.”

Breaking a nation’s sovereignty isn’t always easy for the US, but it has become more common.

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