Afghanistan war: It can't tick by the American clock

Obama needs more patience in the Afghanistan war, especially in helping Karzai cope with the Taliban

Someday, Afghans will experience a shoe-throwing moment – like the one Iraq did in 2008.

Remember when an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at President Bush during a press conference? It was a gesture that, while ill-mannered, symbolized for the Iraqis that it was time for the Americans to start pulling out. The democracy-building mentor had to be let go by the mentee.

As of now, Afghanistan isn’t likely to be ready in its security or its democracy to see US troops start withdrawing in mid-2011 – President Obama’s deadline – despite a US urgency to press reform on that country and despite Mr. Obama’s command to the government not to “dillydally around” in improving civilian life.

The Taliban still remains a mighty foe. The US-led military offensives as part of a new counterinsurgency plan have barely begun. And most of all, Afghan politics and governance are a long way from stability.

The United States can’t expect Afghanistan to tick to an American clock driven by US election cycles and spending priorities. That difference in the pace of change accounts for much of the friction on display between President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration in recent days.

The US president secretly flew to Afghanistan last week for a 30-minute, arm-twisting meeting with President Karzai in his Kabul palace, expressing a “fierce urgency” for a stronger crackdown on corruption, among other things.

It didn’t seem to work. Karzai – an ally whose democratic office was created after the 2001 US-led invasion – continues to lash out at an exit-obsessed US. “Afghanistan will be fixed when its people trust that their president is independent and not a puppet,” he said. “We have to demonstrate our sovereignty. We have to demonstrate that we are standing up for our values.”

Obama did manage to arrange for Karzai to visit the White House on May 12. This diplomacy at the highest levels implies Obama’s envoys have been ineffective in getting Afghanistan ready for the 2011 deadline. US frustration began to emerge last November when, after it appeared Karzai was rigging his reelection, the US envoy in Kabul wrote in a leaked memo that Karzai is “not an adequate strategic partner.”

While he has problems as a leader, the urbane Karzai rules over a country severely divided by mountains, tribes, languages, and, most of all, war. His balancing act between factions is one that can be done by few Afghans.

One of his main difficulties as a leader lies in not appearing to be a US puppet. While he overstepped in welcoming Iran’s president to Kabul to give a strong anti-US speech, such moves reflect Karzai’s own sense of urgency to display independence of the strong US presence in his country.

The US needs to give Karzai more latitude: Only he should determine the pace and scope of talks with insurgents, whether it be Taliban or warlords like Gulbudnin Hekmatyar. Only he should determine the “consultative peace jirga” planned in May to draw parts of Afghan society together. The US can be consulted, but Karzai is the president.

This is a difficult notion for the US to accept when it is losing soldiers and spending billions in Afghanistan. But as the US has learned in other countries where it helped set up or support elected leaders, there comes a time when those leaders must exert sovereignty and nationalist sentiment – simply because of the foreign hand that put them there.

Such a transition is not an easy one. Iraq is proving it can be done, and the US needs more patience to let the Afghans follow suit. Eventually the shoe will come flying, and then the US will knows it has nurtured a new, democratic nation.

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