Whiplash Strategy Backfires on Karzai and Imperils the Surge

President Obama with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at their 40-minute sit down in the Presidential Palace in Kabul

Relations between the Obama administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have been rocky since the start of President Obama’s term in office. The tension between the two is directly related to the US government’s strategy for addressing corruption in Karzai’s administration.

The dilemma confronting the US is that it fears that the Afghan government increasingly resembles the corrupt and weak South Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War. The US does not want a repeat of history where it props up a corrupt and weak government that will never succeed because the people will not fully support it. Compounding this problem is the insurgency.

While Karzai retains significant political support, corruption in his government has challenged his administration’s legitimacy. Politically, Afghanistan today is divided into three main blocs. The first bloc backs Karzai despite the corruption problem. The second bloc supports the Afghan constitution and the reconstruction effort by the international community but is in opposition to Karzai. This group voted for Afghan opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah who lost to President Karzai in last year’s troubled election.

The second bloc believes that Karzai stole last year’s election through fraud. There is concern that this group could turn against the Karzai government -in essence start its own insurgency- if the corruption problem is not effectively addressed. For now it is tacitly going along with the political process and hoping that this year’s parliamentary elections will go over fairly.

The third political bloc in Afghanistan is a collection of insurgent groups. The largest insurgent faction is the Taliban, followed by the Haqqani Network, Gulbiddin Hekmatyar’s organization, and a few others. The insurgents oppose Karzai, the Afghan constitution, and the international forces. They believe that President Karzai is a Western puppet.

If Karzai succeeds in addressing corruption, he will guarantee that those who voted for Abdullah remain committed to the political process –a crucial development that must not fail for Afghanistan to succeed in the long-term. However, cleaning up corruption will not win over the insurgents although it may weaken their movement. The insurgents will continue their campaign until, as the Taliban has stated, “The foreigners leave the country” and the Afghan constitution is “repaired,” or made to reflect the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia Law.

Clearly, the task before the Obama administration is not an easy one. How can the US get Karzai to tackle the corruption problem? The Obama administration has verbally communicated to Karzai the urgency to “clean up” corruption many times. However, the situation has not changed. So what to do?

The unofficial US policy has been to rip into Karzai publicly for corruption and incompetent governance and hope that the resulting negative exposure and humiliation will pressure him to comply. The tactic might be called the “whiplash strategy” because an observer is bound to get mental whiplash from following official US statements as is President Karzai. On the one hand Karzai’s credibility is shredded in the international press but then when the public beating gets too intense and Karzai fires back, US officials praise Karzai as a reliable US partner.

How do we know it is a strategy? When the highest officials in the US government that are connected to Afghanistan repeatedly utter the same thing relentlessly, so that an identifiable pattern emerges, it can only be interpreted as a coordinated effort. Considering what the result of that strategy has been and knowing that the long-term US interest for Afghanistan is a strong central government, it is clear that the whiplash strategy is gone awry.

The latest episode in the whiplash strategy followed President Obama’s first visit to Afghanistan on March 28. The visit was against the backdrop of the Karzai administration’s corruption and poor governance. Obama spent only six hours in Afghanistan and this included the now infamous 40-minute sit-down at the presidential palace with Karzai and close aids to both presidents.

The specific words that Obama spoke have not been made public but it is known that he addressed corruption, better governance, and reconstruction projects. The meeting was likely a chastisement of Karzai and it occurred in front of his aides.

Karzai snapped and three days later on April 1st he vented during a meeting with reporters about the “foreigners” in Afghanistan. Karzai alleged that the West was behind the fraud in last year’s presidential election. He claimed that the West wanted to make him and the parliament weak.

Karzai quickly backed down from his allegations. However, two days later on April 3, he erupted again before 60 to 70 Members of Parliament. Karzai accused the West of meddling with Afghanistan’s sovereignty and said that if it continued doing so that the insurgency would gain legitimacy and that he himself might even join the insurgency.

Contrary to what President Karzai thinks, the whiplash strategy is not intended to undermine his ability to govern or to make him a weak president. It is designed to get him to tackle corruption. However, since the criticism of Karzai has been excessive one cannot help but wonder if Karzai’s ability to command in his own executive branch of government has been compromised.

Put another way, the whiplash strategy that was intended to strengthen the Afghan government by pressuring Karzai to go after corruption has had the opposite effect. It has erased what remaining credibility that Karzai possessed after last year’s election. It has also likely infuriated Karzai’s supporters. Excessive US criticism of President Karzai has left him and his government vulnerable at a time when the US is sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan so that General McChrystal can conduct an effective counterinsurgency strategy, which is one essential element to beating the insurgency.

Fortunately, there is good news for President Karzai. His visit to Washington holds promise for a new start. Recently, US leaders acknowledged the backfiring of the whiplash strategy. There is a growing awareness that bashing Karzai publicly weakens the Afghan government and helps the insurgency.

Where does this leave US policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan’s corruption quagmire? It goes back to the drawing board. Perhaps the US government should consider the Afghan approach of consensus building. Ambassador Eikenberry and General McChrystal could ask President Karzai to assemble his ministers. The two could lay out the corruption issue in frank terms. For instance, Eikenberry could say, “We know that some in this room have doubled and tripled their net worth since occupying their government positions.”

Next, he could explain the effect of corruption on Afghan public opinion and that this corruption is not just at the highest levels of government. It has completely infested the lowest echelons of government staff, or the clerks who have direct contact with the Afghan public. The consensus building approach may not solve the problem completely but it is a start.