Did the Obama administration try a "clumsy putsch" against Karzai?

It’s no secret that Barack Obama and the White House have no particular love for Hamid Karzai, and that the feeling is mutual. Allegations of corruption and the issues of security in Afghanistan have pushed the two reluctant allies farther apart, to the point where Karzai now refuses to sign a status-of-forces agreement that would allow NATO to protect his government — despite the support of the loya jirga he called to discuss it.  According to a catch by Foreign Policy from the new Robert Gates memoir My Duty, Karzai has pretty good reason to distrust the Obama administration:


Lost in the political controversy surrounding former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ new memoir is a fascinating account of a failed administration attempt to ensure that Karzai was defeated in the 2009 Afghan elections. Gates is harshly critical of the move, which he derides as a “clumsy and failed putsch” that did significant damage to the U.S.-Afghan relationship.

The main players in this game were Obama’s special envoy Richard Holbrooke and US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Instead of working with Karzai, or even remaining neutral, the two men tried to boost the fortunes of his political opponents in an attempt to eliminate him from the election. The effort was hardly clandestine, Gates writes:

The two men, according to the former Defense chief, held highly publicized meetings with Karzai’s opponents, attended their rallies, made a point of being photographed with them, and even offered them unspecified advice. Gates writes that Karzai quickly became aware of the U.S. efforts to unseat him and ultimately cut deals with the country’s warlords to win their support in the vote.

That was, er, unhelpful. And unsuccessful, too, as Karzai went on to win in a “dirty” election.  The White House responded by claiming that Gates’ account are “categorically false,” but an Afghanistan expert on the Council of Foreign Relations thinks otherwise:


Stephen Biddle, an Afghanistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Gates’ account bolsters Karzai’s long-held belief that the U.S. government was trying to ensure he lost the election.

“This perception on his part was a major contributor to his growing disaffection with the U.S. ever since,” Biddle said. “The result was the worst of both worlds – Karzai was re-elected, and we now looked like we’d attempted to get rid of him and failed. Not good.”

In other words, we looked both corrupt and inept, plus extending the perception that the Obama administration has no hesitation to toss allies under the bus for its own purposes.

This lends some much-needed context to the latest act of defiance from Karzai:

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Thursday ordered the release of dozens of prisoners accused of having American blood on their hands, saying there was not enough evidence to hold them and intensifying his showdown with Obama administration officials after weeks of warnings that he risked losing American troop support.

The move threatened to plunge relations to a new state of crisis even as a broader, long-term security agreement between the two countries has been held up for weeks.

American officials have said that the prisoners to be released are dangerous Taliban militants and that freeing them without trial would violate an agreement on detainees reached last year. …

Still, just a week after some American officials insisted that such a prisoner release would prove that Mr. Karzai could not be trusted to honor a security deal, the initial American response on Thursday was cautious.


I wonder why they’re cautious in accusing Karzai of not being a trustworthy ally. Hmmmm.

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