Ambassador Eikenberry's pushback against Karzai: Will it make a difference?

US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry responded sharply to criticism of the US by Afghan President Karzai. His unusually tart remarks come amid growing pressure in the US to bring troops home.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP/File
Afghan President Hamid Karzai listens to US Vice President Joe Biden, unseen, during a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan in this Jan. 11 file photo.
Altaf Qadri/AP/File
Karl Eikenberry.

The top US diplomat in Afghanistan joined a chorus of critics of the US mission in Afghanistan this weekend when he responded publicly to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's claims that the US and NATO were “using” Afghanistan.

“At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good, when we reach a point that we feel our soldiers and civilians are being asked to sacrifice without a just cause, and our generous aid programs dismissed as totally ineffective and the source of all corruption … the American people will ask for our forces to come home,” said Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in a speech on Sunday.

From Washington to Kabul, politicians have begun to look at the US mission in Afghanistan through a more critical lens. There have even been increasing calls from US Congress to accelerate the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, especially since Osama bin Laden was killed inside Pakistan.

The ambassador’s unusually critical remarks may be due to the fact that he is months away from finishing his post, but they point to mounting tensions between US and Afghan officials. Still it remains unlikely that his rhetoric will translate to dramatically altered action on the part of the US.

“How ever much Karzai’s comments anger US officials, I don’t think that’s going to be more than a negligible factor,” says Dana Allin, a senior fellow for US foreign policy and transatlantic affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It doesn’t help, obviously, and it will give talking points to people in Congress and elsewhere who want to get out quicker, but I just don’t think it’s going to be the or even a decisive factor.”

Karzai is a habitual flip-flopper, one day condemning the US and NATO, the next reaffirming their relationship to Afghanistan. Though this tendency has confounded Western diplomats, it may stem from his inability to work with the modern media, which reports Karzai’s every move. This poses a considerable problem for the president, as politics here often require him to communicate different messages to various groups.

What if other Afghan politicians follow suit?

Though Karzai's behavior frustrates the US, a bigger concern may be, given the strategic imperative for maintaining relations between the US and Afghanistan what will happen if other Afghan politicians begin to mimic Karzai's critical side, says Barry Salaam, a civil society activist and media expert in Kabul.

“I’m afraid that speaking out against Westerners, if it becomes fashionable, and everybody imitates Karzai and talks out against foreigners because it feels good and it looks right, I think we would end up in a disastrous situation,” he says.

Over the past several years, anger has grown toward the foreign presence here. Though Western officials often tend to focus on the goodwill aspects of their mission, they often overlook how difficult the situation has become for Afghans, says Thomas Ruttig, codirector, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.

“It’s the feeling that a lot of decisions have been taken out of the hands of Afghans and that’s true on the government level and that’s also true for just normal Afghans on the street who see what’s happening in their country,” he says.

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