Recent events in Afghanistan seem to have given Obama pause – and with good reason.
If there is an evolving Obama doctrine underlying the administration’s foreign policy, it is a focus on the consent of the governed and civil society. (I consider this a marked step forward from the “Democracy!!” approach by the Bush White House.) On top of this, counterinsurgency doctrine holds that we must have a partner seen by the local population to be legitimate in order to succeed in containing insurgent forces.
The massive electoral fraud in the recent Afghan elections then undermined both the core principle the Obama administration has put forward in its foreign policy and any chance of military success using a counterinsurgency strategy. Restoring the legitimacy of the Afghan government thus has been one of the major goals of the Obama administration in the past month as they attempted to salvage the situation. The obvious solution was for Karzai to allow some of the many millions of votes for him that were clearly the result of fraud to be thrown out thus ensuring a runoff between the top two contenders for the presidency.
Though it would seem to be in Karzai’s own interest to be seen as legitimate as well as America’s, he apparently did not see it the same way – and believed American forces would protect him and ensure he remained in power even if he blatantly stole the election.
It thus took significant efforts by the Obama administration to push him to act in both his own and America’s interests.
According to Ahmed Rashid, prominent Afghani author and reporter, writing for the New York Review of Books blog there were two main factors that pushed Karzai to finally consent to “enduring” a runoff election:
- He finally became convinced that Obama was serious about not sending in more soldiers to secure the country – as he realized Obama was less concerned about “looking tough” in the eyes of the world and more interested in making sure American soldiers were fighting a winnable war for American interests and was willing to cut Karzai loose if that turned out to be in America’s interest. (Karzai apparently believed Bush would commit to supporting him no matter what, as Bush had a “chummy,” mentor-mentee type relationship with the Afghan leader. Obama deliberately kept his distance to keep the focus on America’s interest in the region.)
- Karzai, as a vain man, did not appreciate dealing with anyone who had ever publicly said a critical word about him; thus the administration used officials who had previously criticized him to ramp up the pressure while three of the few people in Washington who never had (John Kerry, Rahm Emanuel, and Karl Eikenberry) were tasked with cajoling him into complying.
It seems quite silly that despite American and Afghan interests coinciding on this, it took so much attention to the vanities of a corrupt leader in order to persuade him to act in his own and his main sponsor’s interests. Despite elaborate theories about how history works, to get things done, to implement a larger agenda, you need to pay attention to petty personal details.
On such petty-ness, the fate of the world apparently too often turns.
[Image by KarlMarx licensed under Creative Commons.]