- The Washington Times
Monday, April 19, 2010

When Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai lashed out at the United States and NATO earlier this month, the conventional wisdom said he had been taken to the woodshed by President Obama — and didn’t like it.

Mr. Karzai’s tirades, including a threat to join the Taliban, came after Mr. Obama’s March 28 spot visit to Kabul to urge the leader to crack down on rampant corruption in the government.

But current and former U.S. officials say Mr. Karzai’s anger at the West is driven more by a series of events having more to do with his brother, and with the way U.S. newspapers cover him, than with Mr. Obama.

The Afghan leader went on television April 2 to lash out at the United Nations, accusing it of committing fraud in trying to deny him re-election, and all but accusing Washington of trying to install a puppet regime in Kabul. Days later, he told lawmakers he was so infuriated by American military killings of civilians that he, himself, might turn against the tens of thousands of foreign troops in the country and join the insurgent Taliban fighters.

A former senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy told The Washington Times that Mr. Karzai’s chief motive was to lash back at Washington for recent newspaper reports that his half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, might be targeted in the upcoming military push through southern Afghanistan.

Ahmad Karzai is a political force in and around the Taliban birthplace and current insurgent stronghold of Kandahar. The U.S. believes he fosters corruption and heroin trafficking.

Ahmad Karzai could not be reached for comment. He told the New York Times last year that he was not involved in drug trafficking.

The former official said the Afghan president came to believe his brother was already on a target list for Predator unmanned aerial vehicle missile strikes.

Secondly, the ex-official said, Hamid Karzai believes Internet reports that Washington is trying to undermine his standing with lawmakers in parliament through official press leaks.

Of the Obama visit, the source said, “They had a good visit. There was no dressing down.”

Hamid Karzai’s rebellious remarks deeply worried Washington. The Obama administration and military leaders needs a unified Afghan-NATO front, as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, launches a political-military push through the south to clear Taliban positions outside Kandahar and win over the tribal population.

By April 11, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates were on the Sunday talk shows to soothe hard feelings.

Mrs. Clinton said it is the Western news media that get under Mr. Karzai’s skin.

“I, personally, have a lot of sympathy for President Karzai and the extraordinary stress he lives under every single minute of every day,” Mrs. Clinton told NBC. “And, you know, I have a little experience in what it’s like being in the political arena. … He’s not alone in wondering that if he’s attacked by some newspaper in the United States, is our government behind it? And that’s not unusual for us to encounter. I see it all the time in leaders that I deal with.”

Stephen Biddle, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations who helped devise the ongoing troop surge strategy in Afghanistan, said Mr. Karzai’s rebellious remarks are typical of a host-outsider relationship.

“Part of it, I’m sure, is personality. The guy has a reputation for being a bit mercurial,” Mr. Biddle said. “But I think a lot is a reflection of the perfectly normal divergence of interest that you almost always see between a host government and a counterinsurgent from outside. In almost any counterinsurgency, you have an intervention on behalf of a host government that has serious legitimacy problems. … To win the war, you have to pressure the host to change the way they run their country. And most hosts are running their country because they like it that way and they don’t like the pressure. … I think a lot of what Karzai is doing amounts to pushback in an attempt to get the United States to lighten up on him.”

Mr. Biddle said the administration is trying to find the right balance of praise and criticism.

“If you’re going to get the host government to change behavior, which they’re going to have to do if you’re going to win the war, you have to very skillfully combine sticks and carrots,” he said. “You can’t do it with all carrots and no sticks. That was the Bush administration’s approach and it just didn’t work. But you can’t do it with all sticks either. That was the approach the Obama administration took as soon as they took office. They discovered that wasn’t working either.”

James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the Karzai criticism falls under what he calls the administration policy of being “more concerned with engaging adversaries than with protecting the security of friends.”

He added: “President Karzai reportedly is a very prickly individual and is pushing back at what he regards as patronizing and high-handed treatment by Washington. I think the administration should stop criticizing and attacking him in public. Private criticism and public praise would be more effective.”

The administration maintains its dust-up with Mr. Karzai will not curtail the spring-summer incursion to drive the Taliban from southern Afghanistan.

“The fact is, on a day-to-day basis, speaking from our perspective, he has a very effective working relationship with Gen. McChrystal,” Mr. Gates told NBC. “He has cooperated with Gen. McChrystal in going down to Kandahar to begin to set the stage as the Kandahar campaign gets under way in talking to the local tribal leaders and so on.”

Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for Gen. McChrystal, told The Times that Mr. Karzai’s criticisms have not altered the timeline for the next campaign “because there’s not a fixed timeline. Securing Kandahar and other areas in the south is first and foremost a political process, with the nature, scope and timing of security operations supporting that.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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