After more than a year of watching America’s ability to influence President Hamid Karzai ebb, Obama administration officials now admit privately that the tough-love approach Mr. Obama adopted when he came to power may have been a big mistake.
The difference in approach was evident in two recent scenes on Air Force One.
Scene 1, March 28: Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, visited reporters flying with the president from Washington to Kabul and promised that President Obama would take on the Afghan president for ignoring American demands on corruption and drug trafficking.
Scene 2, Friday: General Jones visited reporters, this time traveling with the president to Washington from Prague, and told them that Mr. Obama had sent Mr. Karzai a thank-you note expressing gratitude to the Afghan leader for dinner in Kabul. “It was a respectful letter,” General Jones said.
What happened between these two scenes? Mr. Karzai publicly lashed out against Western governments, hosted the president of Iran and said he would join the Taliban if the international community kept pressuring him.
Obama administration officials maintain that they are not going to return to the days when President George W. Bush and Mr. Karzai would have twice-monthly videoconferences. But the pivot reflects a recognition that public pressure on Mr. Karzai may have driven him away. “In some ways, we want to do more of the love part of ‘tough love,’ and less of the tough part,” a senior administration official said.
The turnabout reflects a growing recognition that the more the administration has taken Mr. Karzai to task publicly, the more resistant he has been to American demands. It also shows that no matter how much administration officials try to work around him, they have no choice but to deal with him.
The relationship with Mr. Karzai has grown so tense, administration officials said, that the foreign leader who may be most important to American interests barely speaks to some of the president’s senior advisers. His relationship with the two key administration emissaries — Richard C. Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry — is deeply strained. He has also clashed with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Karzai’s ties to Mr. Obama himself are, at best, distant.
The only official with whom Mr. Karzai has a solid, day-to-day relationship is the top American military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
The tension with Mr. Karzai mirrors internal stresses within the administration’s Afghanistan team, including friction between Mr. Eikenberry, who is the American ambassador to Afghanistan, and the military, and between Mr. Holbrooke and the White House.
Military officials remain wary of Mr. Eikenberry, himself a former general who served in Afghanistan, after he sent a diplomatic cable last fall that warned that sending additional forces to Afghanistan would result in “astronomical costs” and increase Afghanistan’s dependence on the United States. General McChrystal and other military commanders at the time had requested additional troops, which they received. To this day, the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House all blame one another for leaking the highly classified memo to the news media.(Continues here)