When Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president installed by the United States and propped up by American blood and treasure during nine years of war, threatens to join the Taliban, it's fair to ask if the U.S. enterprise in Afghanistan has stopped making any sense.
In early April, just days after meeting with President Obama in Kabul, Karzai unleashed a series of angry outbursts that stunned U.S. officials. He compared American and NATO troops to invaders and occupiers. He warned that U.S. military operations threatened to turn the Taliban-led insurgency into a legitimate "national resistance." And he accused "foreigners" of trying to rig last year's presidential election against him. "They wanted to have a puppet regime, they wanted to have a servant government," Karzai declared. "If the international community pressures me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban." To underline his point, Karzai traveled to China and Iran, and invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul.
U.S. officials have been quick to portray Karzai as unbalanced, if not full-on crazy. Since taking office, he has tolerated rampant corruption at all levels of government, cut deals with violent warlords to bolster his power and stolen nearly a million votes in last year's election. Those who have observed Karzai firsthand say privately that he has verged on the edge of a nervous breakdown during his time in office and report that he has been seen to burst into tears during official meetings. "He's a difficult partner at best," says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who led the White House's initial review of Afghanistan policy last year. "He's prickly, he's proud, and he's very sensitive to the charge that he's a foreign tool."
But Karzai's eruption represents far more than personal pique. Nearly everyone, from Obama on down, admits that the Taliban will eventually have to be incorporated into a reconfigured government in Kabul. The only question is when. Karzai — along with the United Nations, Afghans of all stripes and even some of Washington's partners in Europe — believes that the time to make peace with the Taliban is now, while the United States plans to expend years trying to gain more ground on the battlefield so it can negotiate from a position of greater strength. In essence, it's a debate over how many more lives must be lost before both sides lay down their arms. Karzai's insistence on not waiting to make a deal with the Taliban is nothing less than a full-frontal challenge to the Obama administration. If Karzai has his way, Washington could be forced to speed up the withdrawal of American troops currently targeted to begin in July 2011.
"By nature, Karzai is a conciliator," says Riedel, who supports the Obama administration's strategy. "In many ways, he's very un-Afghan. He's not a warlord. He's much more of a consensus builder. Advocating a political process is very popular among Afghans. After all, they're the ones dying in the war, and they're more eager than anyone else to find a political solution."
The clash between Kabul and the White House amped up sharply in January, when Karzai surprised the world at a high-profile international conference in London by announcing a major initiative aimed at ending the war. In sharp contrast to U.S. policy, which envisions peeling away low-level Taliban fighters by offering them jobs and cash, Karzai said he'd be willing to sit down with the Taliban's top military and political leaders — including Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Islamist radical who founded the insurgent group. "We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers," Karzai told the London gathering.
The initiative is motivated, in part, by self-preservation. "Karzai has to be there long after we're gone," says Christine Fair, an expert on Afghanistan at Georgetown University. "He doesn't want us to go, but he knows we're going to be gone one day. So he has to try to make a deal with the people who want to kill him."
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