Hamid Karzai is proving, at least, that public acrimony between the U.S. and Afghan presidents will not be a one-way street. During a visit to Kabul last week and a subsequent television interview, President Obama made it clear - and not for the first time - that he was displeased with Mr. Karzai's performance. In the past few days the Afghan leader has more than returned the favor, denouncing alleged Western interference in last year's elections and declaring that he will not be an American puppet - even if that means "I'll join the Taliban."
On the substance of this quarrel, we are with Mr. Obama. He has been pressuring Mr. Karzai to crack down on the rampant corruption in his government, especially in the southern provinces where U.S. troops are trying to break the hold of the Taliban. The White House also resisted Mr. Karzai's attempt to eliminate U.N. representatives from the election commission. The Afghan president's claim of electoral interference, though perhaps prompted by that pressure, is not credible; his steps toward launching negotiations with insurgent leaders appear premature, at best.
The question remains whether airing these differences in public helps or hurts the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. As in the case of the very public spat he initiated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Obama's treatment of Mr. Karzai doesn't seem to flow from a careful strategy. Does Mr. Obama think that holding the Afghan president at arm's length is likely to prompt more responsiveness to U.S. concerns? Is he trying to show the Afghan people that U.S. support for an unpopular government is not unconditional? If so, he may have miscalculated: Not only has Mr. Karzai responded defiantly, but he has also appealed to Afghan resentment against foreign troops and political tutelage.
In some important ways, the two governments are still cooperating. Mr. Karzai made a conciliatory phone call to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the end of last week, and on Sunday he traveled to the southern city of Kandahar to help build public support for a crucial upcoming U.S. and NATO offensive. The Afghan president has shown himself to be a committed opponent of radical Islam and of terrorism over the past decade, and he surely knows that his country still needs U.S. troops to defeat them.
For his part, Mr. Obama presumably realizes that there is no workable alternative to Mr. Karzai and that a war on which he has staked his foreign policy cannot succeed without a strong cooperation from the Afghan leader. It's past time for Mr. Obama to begin building that partnership - and it's hard to see how public disparagement of Mr. Karzai helps.
- Washington Post
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