An Afghan governor dies and Hamid Karzai cries. Is that a problem?
Bob Woodward's recent book amplified US whispers that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is unstable. There is a problem, but it isn't his brief show of emotion today.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai teared up as he delivered a nationally televised speech in Kabul today shortly after the deputy governor of Ghazni province and five others were killed in a suicide bombing.Skip to next paragraph
2011 Reflections: Suddenly, a new era in the Middle East
2011 Reflections: the end of a landmark year for Latin America
2011 Reflections: Africa rises, taking charge of its affairs
How the 'Year of the Protester' played out in Europe
In Prague, a tale of communism past
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
President Karzai, the man President Barack Obama is counting on to turn Afghanistan around, has long been a source of frustration for US officials, particularly since he retained power in a fraud-marred election last year.
While today's show of emotion reinforced US concerns about Karzai's reliability, the more important signals to be watching are what motivates him – and how external pressures are influencing him.
US whispers about Karzai's instability
US diplomats have long privately whispered that there was something "wrong" with Karzai mentally. Those allegations erupted into the open last week with the publication of Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars," which is largely a chronicle of the US government debate last year about the wisdom of committing more troops and money to the Afghanistan war.
Woodward writes that US intelligence determined that the Afghan president is "manic depressive" and occasionally smokes marijuana. He also writes that US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry once explained the mercurial Karzai's behavior by saying he was occasionally "off his meds," though the book doesn't provide the source for that claim.
That such information is in the book isn't a surprise. US diplomats have privately referred to Karzai as "erratic" and similarly coded words over the years, and Mr. Eikenberry's distaste for Karzai has long been public knowledge. In a leaked embassy memo last year he called Mr. Karzai an "inadequate strategic partner."
Why Karzai's comments, not tears, were striking
Nor was Karzai's show of emotion today, which was connected by bloggers and newspapers to his mental state, terribly surprising. After all, he presides over a country where civilians, minor officials, and local police are being killed on a daily basis.
The Taliban have ramped up an assassination campaign in Afghanistan's provinces in recent months, particular in and around their traditional strongholds like Kandahar, but have also managed to expand the scope of their operations to areas like Ghazni, about 60 miles southwest of Kabul.
Having worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places where political violence is an almost daily occurrence, I've always been surprised that the officials tasked with restoring basic public sanity don't break down more open.
I found Karzai's comments today striking for a different reason, since they jibed with what a number of Western officials and local politicians who know the man told me when I visited Afghanistan last July.
What it boils down to is that Karzai's interests are fundamentally different from America's. That's not earth-shattering, of course. But it's worth thinking about what motivates Karzai when trying to analyze his seemingly odd behaviors – from lashing out at the United States, his main patron, to mulling a possible deal with the Taliban if US officials pushed him too far.