Is the White House thinking about getting out of Afghanistan?
Just as Hamlet’s mother and his murderous uncle rushed to marry with unseemly haste, even before his slain father’s body was cold, the United States is hastily pretending that the Afghan election is over and done with. It was, President Obama admits, “messy.” Now it’s time to look ahead, and to deal with the reelected President Karzai, warts and all, they say.
But the United States, and the world community, is going to have to look past Karzai.
Here, to start with, is a partial transcript of an exchange between George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s This Week and Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s top political advisers, in which Jarrett talks about bringing the war “to a close”:
STEPHANOPOULOS: OK. Let’s talk about Afghanistan for a second. We see today the opposition candidate to President Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, has said he’s not going to run in the run-off. Is this a welcome development or is the White House worried the questions about this election will cast a cloud over President Karzai and make it more difficult for the president to implement his strategy?
JARRETT: We don’t think that it’s going to add a complication to the strategy. It’s up to the Afghan people and their authorities to decide how to proceed going forward. We watched the election very carefully. And we’re going to work with the leader of the Afghan government and hopefully that’s going to improve the state of conditions for the people in Afghanistan, and also help us as we try to bring this war to a close.
Let’s hope that Jarrett is reflecting inside-the-White-House discussions that center not on escalating the war, a la General McChrystal and his COIN cult, but on ending it. If so, and in that limited sense, Karzai might be one piece of the puzzle. But as I wrote in my Nation piece last week, “How to Get Out,” any solution for Afghanistan will require a wholesale effort to remake the Afghan political compact to include lots more Pashtuns, the Taliban, and many other insurgents. I wrote:
“Then comes the tricky part: the president should encourage the convening of an international Bonn II conference involving the UN, the major world powers and Afghanistan’s neighbors–including Iran, India and Pakistan–to support the renegotiation of the Afghanistan compact. At the table must be representatives of all of Afghanistan’s stakeholders, including the Taliban and their allies. In advance of that, the United States should join other nations and the UN to persuade President Karzai, his main electoral opponents and other Afghan politicians to form a coalition that would create an interim caretaker regime until the establishment of a more broadly based government.”
Karzai, who referred to his “brothers” in the Taliban during his vitctory speech this week, probably understands that the Taliban has to be included. But Karzai seems unwilling to give up the privileges and power (including the power to rake in corrupt profits) that go along with being Afghanistan’s president.
The Washington Post provides a blow-by-blow account of efforts by Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, to divide up the spoils in the wake of the election. Reading that piece, it seems unlikely that Karzai can be the vehicle for any real change.
The London Times reports that Obama has given Karzai a six-month deadline, after which the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan. Here’s the money quote, from an Afghan official close to Karzai:
“If he doesn’t meet the conditions within six months, Obama has told him America will pull out. Obama said they don’t want their soldiers’ lives wasted for nothing. They want changes in Cabinet, and changes in his personal staff.”
As Jarrett hinted (if, indeed, that is what she meant), the Karzai crisis is the key to unlock the Afghan exit door. Politically, it gives Obama the excuse he needs to pack up and leave.