He was the first to congratulate and the first to rebuke. “I emphasized that this has to be a point in time in which we begin to write a new chapter,” President Obama said of his phone call to Hamid Karzai the morning of his "victory."
That chapter, titled “Anti-Corruption 101,” was recited by a number of Western leaders, most pointedly by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Recently he told reporters amid falling poll numbers, “I am not prepared to put the lives of British men and women in harm’s way for a government that does not stand up against corruption.”
Karzai has played his part, vowing to tackle corruption and form a national unity government, but like a predator patiently awaiting the right sized prey, he and his team finally spotted their target. Kai Eide, the UN’s Afghan envoy, didn’t go beyond what world leaders are ordering, but he lacks the raw power.
"We can’t afford any longer a situation where warlords and power brokers play their own games,” Eide said on Thursday. “We have to have a political landscape here that draws the country in the same direction, which is in the direction of significant reform.”
Though Obama told Karzai, “The proof is not going to be in words. It’s going to be in deeds,” world leaders should take notice of Karzai’s reaction. It’s closer to his true feelings than his formal response to the West.
“Over the last few days,” read a Foreign Ministry statement, “some political and diplomatic circles and propaganda agencies of certain foreign countries have intervened in Afghanistan’s internal affairs by issuing instructions concerning the composition of Afghan government organs and political policy of Afghanistan. Such instructions have violated respect for Afghanistan’s national sovereignty.”
This statement targets every foreign power in Afghanistan, not just the UN. Karzai is sending a message to back off, and a silent warning that he’ll exploit foreign “intervention” if pushed to the wall.
Clearly relations between America and Afghanistan remain on the rocks. Obama was never a fan of Karzai and seems unhappy as ever. Though America was instrumental in guiding Karzai to power, it came down hard on him during the runoff speculation in order to portray legitimacy. Karzai, believing he already won, felt betrayed.
Karzai went so far as to refuse special envoy Richard Holbrooke, forcing Senator John Kerry to make an emergency appearance. Kerry was hailed for his diplomatic maneuvering and saw his stock rise in the White House, but he’s headed in Holbrooke's direction after making similar remarks on corruption and “cronies.” Admiral Mike Mullen could be next.
A secondary omen is found in Karzai’s syntax. Having made a point to refuse the guilt of corruption, Karzai told a news conference after assuming office, “Afghanistan has been defamed by corruption. Our government has been defamed by corruption. We will strive, by any means possible, to eradicate this stain."
“Our government has been seriously discredited by administrative corruption,” he said. “We will try to remove this stigma from our soil and our country in any possible way."
Except the word “defame” means to ruin a good reputation, which the Afghan government never had when it came to corruption. A “stain” implies that the problem comes from the outside, a spill, not internal bleeding. “Administrative corruption” doesn’t account for a stolen election.
Karzai’s own brother, a CIA asset and drug warlord, isn’t a stain, but a drain. Yet Kerry defended Wali Karzai, leaving us to wonder whether America is as insincere about corruption as Karzai appears to be.
The West always had a high chance of alienating Karzai due to political pressure in their own countries. Karzai knows this, which is why he isn’t that afraid. He knows Obama needs him to succeed, that at least part of his criticism is pandering for the homeland, that America lacks real power to control the Afghan government.
Karzai could change, anything is possible, but applying extreme pressure will more likely turn him to dust than a diamond.