Obama compounded his Karzai problem by mishandling the Afghan leader until recently. After a year of coldness, he has now belatedly embraced the usual strategy for managing a weak client, which is to heap love on him in public and pragmatically push for deliverables in private. Whether it will work remains to be seen. The test will not be not so much what Karzai does but what he allows other Afghans to do in building working institutions at the national and local level.
What’s harder to understand is Obama’s failure to fix the dysfunctionality on the American side. A pivotal player here is Karl Eikenberry, the retired general Obama appointed as ambassador. Eikenberry’s relations with Karzai are bad; his relations with McChrystal may be even worse. Since January a steady stream of stories has documented their clashes over tactics, including Eikenberry’s opposition to the formation of local militias and quick development projects in Kandahar. Now they are at odds over how to respond to an Afghan request for an upgraded strategic partnership, including a U.S. security guarantee. Here’s another contrast with Iraq: There was no daylight between military commander David Petraeus and then-ambassador Ryan Crocker.
At a White House press briefing Monday, Eikenberry was put on the spot by a reporter who asked if he now believed that “President Karzai is an adequate strategic partner.” Incredibly, the ambassador refused to offer his personal endorsement to the man he is supposed to be working with. “President Obama has expressed his confidence in President Karzai and our work together,” he answered.