May 13, 2010

Mr. Obama And Mr. Karzai, Take Two

New York Times
May 13, 2010

After months of rancor, President Obama made nice to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Wednesday, and Mr. Karzai made nice back. At a White House press conference, the two men painted a sunny, improbable picture of cooperation and mutual respect. There was no mention of the many failings of Mr. Karzai’s government or his resentment of American pressure.

Confronting the Afghan leader head-on was not working. We just hope that Mr. Obama and his aides have a real plan — beyond lowering the temperature — for getting Mr. Karzai to do what is needed and for building up a minimally effective Afghan government.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has a clear military strategy. We are less certain about the administration’s political strategy.

The gap, and the danger, was on full display in Marja. February’s military offensive drove Taliban forces out of the area and secured the city center. American plans to quickly set up a competent “government in a box” faltered — either because there were too few qualified Afghans, or too few willing to take the risk, or Mr. Karzai’s government wasn’t really interested.

More than two months later, the Taliban are still active, and there is still no effective local government. Washington will need to do better with this summer’s far more important offensive in Kandahar. Mr. Karzai bears considerable responsibility for all that has gone wrong. He has refused to root out corruption. He prefers cronies to competent managers. He has wasted far too much time railing at his American protectors.

The problem is compounded by uncertainties about who is running the civilian side of Afghan policy. Richard Holbrooke was supposed to be the go-to guy. But his ties with Mr. Karzai soured, and now his clout — in Washington and Kabul — is unclear. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s publicized assessment that Mr. Karzai is not an “adequate strategic partner” has left lingering tensions with Mr. Karzai and General McChrystal.

The administration’s goals are rightly focused on building up Afghan government capacity — from Kabul to the local level. Until the government can been seen providing minimal security, jobs, water and electricity, Afghans are unlikely to take the risk of rejecting the Taliban. Progress has been frustratingly slow.

The State Department has deployed 1,000 civilian experts as of March (up from more than 300 last year) to advise Afghan ministries and oversee aid programs. Those numbers mask how hard it was to fill those jobs — and how hard it will be to replace them. Congress needs to fully finance the State Department’s request for $284 million to build a permanent corps of civilian experts to help in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a new report by the Government Accountability Office said violence in Afghanistan is delaying implementation and increasing the costs of American aid programs and making them harder to monitor. This does not augur well for President Obama’s goal to start withdrawing American troops by mid-2011.

We hope all the hospitality does not leave President Karzai thinking he’s off the hook. We assume Mr. Obama was a bit blunter in private. We hope Mr. Obama is also having tough discussions with his own team.

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