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Can Afghanistan President Karzai and Obama still work together?

Angry words lately between Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and the administration of Barack Obama have raised questions about whether they can work together to stabilize the war torn country.

By Staff writer / April 17, 2010

Kunduz Gov. Mohammed Omar helps Afghan President Hamid Karzai put on a turban during a meeting with elders in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Karzai has exchanged angry words with US President Barack Obama.

Dusan Vranic, Pool/AP

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New Delhi

The relationship between Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and President Barack Obama has come to resemble a loveless marriage succumbing to the strain of keeping up public appearances.

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An imminent split seems unlikely. The US remains Afghanistan's chief international backer and the Obama administration's ambitious plan to transform the war-torn country needs Mr. Karzai if it's going to succeed.

But the angry words tossed between Kabul and Washington lately have amply demonstrated the strain between a US administration that says it is committed to political reform in Afghanistan and an Afghan leader empowered by an election widely thought to have been marred by fraud.

In one recent low point, President Hamid Karzai allegedly threatened to join the Taliban if the international community kept pressuring his administration. The US State Department shot back, saying it was considering disinviting Mr. Karzai from a meeting in Washington next month. Karzai spokesman Waheed Omer said last week that Karzai never made the comments about joining the Taliban, though the Associated Press and others stand by their reporting.

"Karzai feels he's hostage to the internationals, and they feel they are hostage to him. So you have this frustration on both sides," says Martine van Bijlert, codirector of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. "It's been like that for a long time, and it seems to be getting worse."

Yet Karzai and Washington are bound together in the interests of their charge – post-Taliban Afghanistan – with President Obama committing 30,000 more troops to safeguard Karzai's fragile regime.

Analysts are divided on how the United States might put the relationship on more constructive footing, with some advocating careful confrontation and others counseling avoidance.

What might the US do?

The confrontational approach involves warning Karzai that his anti-Western statements undermine public support from NATO democracies that have committed troops to Afghanistan.

Karzai, argues Jamie Metzl with the Asia Society in New York, should be reminded that the 18-month time frame set by Mr. Obama last year for the beginning of withdrawal is "ticking away" and when the clock strikes midnight political support for staying may disappear if his government hasn't improved.

The US could also curtail financial support to Karzai, Mr. Metzl says, and reexamine ties with figures such as his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is widely considered to be paid by the Central Intelligence Agency, a charge he denies.

Metzl shares the general consensus among analysts, however, that there's no alternative to Karzai on the horizon. He says there is no serious talk in Washington of withdrawing support from Karzai as the US did with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, which led to Diem's ouster and murder that year.

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