Will Compromises Strengthen Obama and Karzai?

As American politicians and pundits searched for lessons to be learned from September 11, the paucity of domestic experts knowledgeable about South Asia was noted as a weakness the U.S. government had to address urgently, by cultivating a cadre of diplomats and linguists.

Almost a decade later, the bumps in U.S.-Afghan relations point to the United States' continued challenges in navigating the complex politics of the region. The Obama administration's earlier tough appeals to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to root out corruption and illicit drug trade have largely fallen on deaf ears. In response to criticism, the resentful Mr. Karzai threatened to discontinue a partnership with Washington and seek a closer engagement with Moscow instead.  

The Obama administration has learned the hard way that, in order to install functioning public institutions in a country ravaged by poverty and Islamic insurgency, and divided along the ethnic lines, the U.S. has to tackle this task in a way that would take into account the Afghans' traditions and cultural sensitivities. This new approach was on full display during President Karzai's visit to Washington last week.       

One example is Mr. Karzai's younger half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, a notoriously corrupt leader of the provincial council in Kandahar that is a home base of the Karzai family. President Karzai rejected U.S. demands to lay off his brother, citing the latter's status as an elected official. Fair enough, and Mr. Obama did not raise this issue with Mr. Karzai last week. Exposing unscrupulous officials is important, but Washington should also be prepared to deal with strong familial and tribal ties characteristic of Afghanistan, where commitments made to foreign allies are often secondary to the need to protect the honor and reputation of one's close relatives. And the fact that U.S. intelligence has so far been unable to produce hard evidence of Mr. Karzai Jr.'s shady practices did not help the Obama administration's case, either.  

Secondly, the Obama administration will have to consider a peculiar attitude toward corruption among the Afghans. While many of them disapprove of bribery and view it as a burden on ordinary citizens, they are often lenient toward dishonest officials who give back to the needy in their communities. Of course, communities could benefit even more if the money were paid not to the local strongmen but to the government, as it should be. A properly functioning  government would then redistribute the revenue among local authorities, while seeing to it that the funds are expended for intended purposes. As American civilian personnel engages more closely in what, it says, will be a rudimentary nation-building assistance to President Karzai, it should do more to educate the Afghans on transparent methods of public revenue collection and sharing.    

Lastly, the Obama administration should understand Mr. Karzai's own delicate position. He is asked to undertake what will be perceived by some of his influential compatriots' as highly unpopular measures. How he goes about prosecuting the senior-level fraudulent public servants—a step viewed as crucial by the United States—may determine his own political future. As will his 12 rules, which intend to minimize civilian casualties during the allied forces' offensives, but may, instead, help some of the terrorists escape scot-free.

While in Washington last week, the Afghan president received assurances that U.S. forces would continue backing him and building public support in Afghanistan for his reforms in the next few years. But Mr. Karzai also has to prepare for an inevitable, albeit gradual pull-out of U.S. personnel from Afghanistan that's scheduled to begin in July 2011. Mr. Karzai's efforts to reconcile with Taliban's hard-line warlords may represent an attempt to, at the very least, secure his political future in Afghanistan by positioning himself as an inclusive and tolerant leader. Yet, his peacemaking efforts are not likely to succeed given a wide gap between the Talibs' medieval beliefs and President Karzai's Western-inspired reforms.         

Switching from the non-productive language of demands to mutually palatable compromises is a sign of the Obama administration's increased diplomatic maturity in Afghanistan. Washington may achieve more in Afghanistan by exhibiting some flexibility in its approach rather than imposing rigid directives. At the same time, President Obama should remember that he will ultimately be judged based on his administration's success in anti-terrorist and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan.

And by approving an "extended surge" in the level of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and agreeing to an open-ended troop withdrawal timetable, Mr. Obama has opened himself up to an even closer scrutiny by the American public. The taxpayers of all political stripes will want to know whether the lives lost and the billions spent in Afghanistan have, indeed, helped to break the spine of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists and to improve the U.S. national security. 

Marianna Gurtovnik's interests lie in foreign policy, international security, and energy security. She has written on these topics for World Politics Review, Transitions Online, and the Congressionally-funded Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). For PNSR, she completed research studies on the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. Government's response to the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the Suez Canal Crisis (1956). She holds a Master's Degree in Public Administration from American University in Washington, DC.