Hamid Karzai, who is on his umpteenth visit to Washington, is a royal pain who has made no secret of his growing anti-Americanism, to the point of threatening to join the Taliban. President Karzai may also be, for that reason, the most critical asset Barack Obama now has in Afghanistan—and the main ticket home for thousands of American troops there.
Despite attempts to smear him as crazy or unstable or drug-addled—by controversial ex-diplomat Peter Galbraith, among others—most senior U.S. and British officials who have worked closely with Karzai say he is acting as normally as anyone could expect from someone who is regularly accused of being an American stooge by the Islamist insurgents in his country. Not to mention someone who has heard his sanity and reliability regularly questioned in leaked U.S. memos and press accounts over the last year. Among his defenders: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who told me in a late April interview that both she and Sen. John Kerry have "spent a lot of time talking to President Karzai about why elections oftentimes aren't fair," drawing "on our own personal experience.") Another champion of Karzai is NATO civilian envoy Mark Sedwill, who told me and other reporters recently that the Afghan leader is doing the best he can with the meager cards he has been dealt and who suggests, piquantly, that a better question might be whether Karzai sees the Western allies as reliable.
The main point is this: if Obama and NATO are to succeed with their plans for a phased withdrawal—the first tranche of provinces scheduled to be turned over to Afghan forces is to be announced by November—Karzai's plans for reconciliation with hardliners, beginning with his upcoming "peace jirga," must succeed first. Both sides are going through the motions of insisting that any radicals who come in from the cold must cut ties with the Taliban, disarm, and operate within the Afghan constitution. But within that broad framework Karzai has been wooing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the brutal Afghan warlord, among others, and that seems to square with General Petraeus's original counterinsurgency concept of separating out the "reconcilables" from the "irreconcilables." (Not to mention Obama's broad outreach to the Muslim world.)
To be successful at this effort, Karzai must occasionally fulminate against American imperialism to make himself credible, just as Iraqi leaders must. "He's speaking to a broader audience," says former Afghan envoy Jim Dobbins of the Rand Corp. "I think that far from finding him unstable or mercurial, most American officials have tended to be concerned that he was too passive in the past."
Gathering together some 1,500 Afghan leaders for a "consultative" jirga by summer is ... somewhat more than passive. And now everybody, including U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry—who was infamously quoted saying in a leaked memo last year that Karzai was an inadequate partner—is being urged to get on board the Karzai express to handover, which is scheduled to begin in July 2011. "I think we're going to emerge [from this visit] with an even better alignment," a chastened Eikenberry said at a White House briefing on Monday. "Reconciliation and reintegration [of radical elements] are high on our agenda."