Afghan President Hamid Karzai's rebuke of U.S. and NATO forces as the principal cause of civilian casualties in his country understandably outraged American officials, with some in Congress threatening to retaliate by making even deeper cuts in military and other aid to that impoverished nation. Nevertheless, the U.S. has important long-term interests in preventing Afghanistan from sliding back into chaos that transcend the indignity of the daily stream of slights and insults issuing from Mr. Karzai's office. The Obama administration needs to keep those interests in mind even as it plans for Mr. Karzai's eventual exit.
In a recently published memoir, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recalls experiencing moments of serious alarm over President Barack Obama's private questioning of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan — and in particular his deepening loss of confidence in Mr. Karzai's leadership. Mr. Gates apparently feared that President Obama's evident reluctance to involve the U.S. more deeply in fighting the Afghan insurgency would only grow stronger if Mr. Karzai persisted in his insufferably shabby treatment of his Washington benefactors.
Yet the truth is President Obama had good reason to be skeptical: After more than a decade of war, it remains unclear whether Afghanistan's weak and corruption-riddled central government can stand up against a resurgent Taliban, despite the massive investment of blood and treasure the U.S. has made in that country. Meanwhile Mr. Karzai, the man leading it, has over and over proved himself a feckless, unreliable partner who is as liable to turn on his allies as to fight the extremists.
The dangerously mercurial character of Mr. Karzai's leadership was on full display last week when the Afghan president suddenly appeared to join his own government's enemies in denouncing U.S. and NATO forces for their alleged role in the deaths of innocent Afghan civilians. Never mind that the evidence supporting the charge was thin to nonexistent, or that many of the materials purporting to document the atrocities were clearly propaganda that had appeared on insurgent websites months or even years before the killings that the Taliban claimed had taken place just a few weeks ago.
It's inconceivable that Mr. Karzai didn't know this when he publicly accepted the Taliban's anti-American invective at face value and embraced it as his own. Then, adding insult to injury, he essentially accused the U.S. of committing war crimes in order to undermine his government and prevent Afghan officials from negotiating a peace with the militants who have sworn to topple it. Mr. Karzai seems completely oblivious to how badly his remarks are playing among Americans mightily disgusted by the war and its toll, and this week he even added salt to the wound by freeing dozens of militants the U.S. suspects of killing Americans.
Still, the U.S. must summon all its patience and diplomacy to keep the Afghan relationship from going completely off the rails. For one thing, the Pentagon needs to conclude an agreement negotiated last year with the Afghan government that will allow several thousand U.S. and NATO troops to remain in the country for training and counter-terrorism missions after the bulk of foreign military forces depart as scheduled at the end of this year. So far, Mr. Karzai has stubbornly refused to sign that document, raising the possibility that in December Afghanistan could be left alone to face the Taliban and give up all the gains the U.S. and its allies have made over more than a decade of fighting.
Even more important, a total U.S. withdrawal would entail the losses of bases inside Afghanistan from which the Pentagon and the CIA conduct drone strikes against Islamist insurgents based along the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier. The loss of those bases not only would severely limit the U.S.' ability to attack al-Qaida and other insurgent groups in the rough, inaccessible border region but would also make it much more difficult to monitor Pakistan's growing nuclear weapons arsenal and prevent lost or stolen nukes from falling into terrorists' hands.
That's why the stakes are so high in the U.S.' troubled relationship with Mr. Karzai and his government — and why, whatever game the Afghan president is playing to shore up his domestic political support, the U.S. can't afford the luxury of simply throwing up its hands and walking away from the mess he is making. Mercifully, Mr. Karzai is scheduled to step down from the presidency after national elections in April. However annoying he may be until then, the Obama administration has little choice but to sit tight, wait him out and hope that his eventual successor proves more adept than he at holding up the Afghans' end of the bargain.
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