Our analysis is growing as stale as their behavior since Washington and Kabul won't stop giving their monthly performance until July 2011 at the earliest. So rather than waste any more time a single script should suffice for future showings.
Some perverse good comes of Washington’s worn act. One advantage to watching the same movie or play over and over is that the entire production can be broken down. We can deduce the market and target audiences, memorize the scenes and acts, how each actor feels and what they say, their intricacies.
Kabul would be one hell of a show if not so terrible to watch in reality.
A typical play has numerous ways of opening, but the story is usually the same: a tale of needs. Last week’s flare up is a prototypical copy. President Barack Obama had secretly traveled to Afghanistan needing to break his silence and politically pressure Karzai for the US public’s consumption.
Obama also needs him to speed up the political process; Parliament just gave Karzai 10 days to form his cabinet, nearly nine months after the election. Obama’s needs will frequently pop up with only 15 months until his July 2011 deadline.
But Karzai has his own needs - defending his image - and the resulting explosion tore through the international press, as usual.
At this point the US media activates with reports like the White House is looking to isolate Karzai. This train of thought is ridden by the mainstream liberal media, doubting Karzai’s ability but still holding to Obama line, as White House officials work anonymously to get the message out.
Sometimes, like Bruce Riedel, they reveal themselves.
Karzai bashing continues for several days, often spawning another rebuke from Kabul and creating a second wave, but the cycle usually halts itself and begins to reverse three to five days after the initial blast. First comes a defense from a GOP figurehead, in this specific case Liz Cheney, triggering a Republican backlash that rattles the White House.
Having exposed Karzai sufficiently the White House and Pentagon’s public walk-back commences.
The preemptive warning came before the weekend when National Security Adviser Jim Jones said of the latest feud with Karzai, "I think this is really behind us now.” Two weeks ago Jones complained that Karzai has ignored many US demands "almost since Day 1." After playing bad cop on the way to Kabul, he apparently encouraged Obama to send a “thank you letter” to Karzai.
Jones’ flipping flopping was a clear indicator of the finale in store, but he was echoed by an unlikely figure. US ambassador Karl Eikenberry is on record as one of Karzai’s biggest skeptics, so for him to play a minor role tipped off how large a presentation awaited.
“Of course, we're friends, we're allies, partners,” he said on Friday, “and there's going to be points of time when we have disagreements, and that's how it is between good friends.”
The curtains opened Sunday to a full stage. Two hammers came down as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, side by side, killed multiple birds by ignoring Israel’s actions in the West Bank. Without reference to the Palestinians, both cast their gaze on Iran while defending Karzai as if he were Benjamin Netanyahu.
"This is a leader who is under enormous pressure,” Clinton said. “And I wonder sometimes how anybody can cope with the kind of relentless stress that you face after having been in some military activity or war footing for 30 years, which is what the reality is in Afghanistan."
Sometimes we wonder how US officials involved in said 30 year war can deny so effortlessly. Here is Clinton’s reality - she wants America not to overreact to Karzai’s behavior. To keep quiet.
"I think he sees himself as the embodiment of Afghan sovereignty,” Gates said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “And so he is sensitive to public statements that he thinks are not aimed not just at him, but at Afghanistan.”
Silence again, a frequent theme from Robert Gates, broadcast on the three major US television networks.
Clinton and Gates also seized on former UN official Peter Gailbrath’s unwise allegation that Karzai has been using opium. This was an easy slam dunk. Clinton began by dancing around the issue, saying, “Some of these outlandish claims that are being made and accusations that are being hurled are really unfortunate.”
Then Gates went in for the kill: "This statement about the drugs and so on is just stupid.”
For the most part their interviews, as is often the case, contained no real insight, their backtracking the normal reaction to any feud with Karzai. After all they have no other option, so Washington’s operating method has taken to temporarily boiling and cooling him off, a sort of reverse water boarding.
Meanwhile lies are fed to a US public distracted by the economy.
"The working relationship with him on a day-to-day basis is still going quite well,” Gates said, while Clinton added, “I think what you're hearing from Secretary Gates and me today is: we consider him a reliable partner.”
There goes Bruce Riedel’s statement that the White House had “no illusions of Karzai.” Only last week Karzai and Clinton had a “constructive conversation” after he blamed foreigners for his own election fraud. Two days later Karzai threatened, allegedly, to join the Taliban, spurring a second rebuke from the White House. Now everything is fine again.
Spokesman Robert Gibbs was being less than truthful when he said during the controversy, “on behalf of the American people, we're frustrated with these remarks.” No evidence of that.
But fortunately Gates managed to find a use in the end, necessary as it is to scavenge his statements.
"This is a man who's, first of all, a political leader,” he said referring to Karzai. “He has domestic audiences as well as foreign audiences. I think we frankly have to be sensitive in our own comments about President Karzai in terms of being mindful that he is the embodiment of sovereignty for Afghanistan also in the way we treat him."
Karzai is obviously playing the loyal ally to America and rebel to Afghans, but Gates is living his own words - US officials have a domestic and foreign audience to play to as well. And that is where so many plot holes lie.
A majority of Americans have always lacked faith in Karzai’s ability, and so the White House must appease those who doubt him while simultaneously trying to make friends with him. This situation is further complicated by the fact that Obama’s political support opposes the war while his opposition keeps him afloat. The White House’s sweeter tone for Karzai and the GOP, which he needs to keep his approval at 50%.
Gates in particular is a pill for the GOP.
But self interest sows the the seeds of chaos, and the White House’s latest show runs deeper than Karzai’s mental health or the Republicans. Gates stressed that Karzai and U.S. military continues to have a "very positive relationship,” a claim similarly issued by General McChrystal.
How truthful are they though?
It turns out that Clinton and Gates were pre-operations directed against the US people, battlefield preparation for US envoy Richard Holbrooke and senior general David Petraeus's meeting with Karzai in Kabul on Sunday. The three men sat together for a press conference as Holbrooke proclaimed, "We have a good relationship with this government.”
Clearly the White House went all out to persuade the American people and Karzai, deploying his greatest detractors to praise him. Something is going on here. What does Washington care about more than anything else? What is its greatest need? Perhaps the military campaign in Kandahar?
Sounds like a reason to blanket the world with Karzai-grams.
The US public has already been doused with reports of the gradual Kandahar campaign, a psychological rollout to both advertise and disguise the military one. Hyping their political component of the surge, Petraeus followed General McChrystal by playing up Karzai’s “commander in chief” status.
“President Karzai is the commander in chief," he said. "We are, at the end of the day, guests in this country.”
These generals will never show it, but their outer layers cannot suppress their subconsciousness. Reports of Kandahar also describe the cold welcome towards Karzai and a team of US military officials is widely circulated. To make matters worse Karzai promised to delay the operation until the tribal leaders were satisfied. The Times reports, “General Stanley McChrystal, the Nato commander, who was sitting behind him, looked distinctly apprehensive.”
His look is likely why Jones, Eikenberry, Clinton, Gates, Holbrooke, and Petraeus all hit the stage at once.
This sequence of events is likely to conform to any future outburst. Afghanistan will never progress as fast as Obama would like (16 months goes by in a hurry), thus the White House will always find it necessary to stoke Karzai. If he doesn’t independently target the West, Karzai will respond to any US pressure with an rebellious act for his domestic audience. The US public will further panic, fanning a news cycle. The White House, needing GOP support along with Karzai’s, will then start the walk down, and blame the media.
And often the retreat corresponds to a new demand.
The needs of these powers will never align and so their performance is doomed to repeat endlessly. We need some way to sticky this post. For now we’ll just post it during each future show.