November 11, 2009 — When President Obama delivered a rare and public call last week for President Hamid Karzai to crack down on corruption in Afghanistan, there was one glaring omission from his remarks — an “or else.”
Mr. Obama’s exclusion of the obvious threat — that he will pull American troops out of Afghanistan if Mr. Karzai does not comply — reflects a stark conundrum: How much leverage does the United States really have over the Afghan leader?
“You know that scene in the movie ‘Blazing Saddles,’ when Cleavon Little holds the gun to his own head and threatens to shoot himself?” asked Ronald E. Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan.
“The argument that we could pull out of Afghanistan if Karzai doesn’t do what we say is stupid. We couldn’t get the Pakistanis to fight if we leave Afghanistan; we couldn’t accomplish what we’ve set out to do. And Karzai knows that.”
As Mr. Obama nears the end of his review of American strategy in Afghanistan, the issue of how he will prod, cajole or bully Mr. Karzai into taking action on matters he has avoided for the past five years has been catapulted to the center of the discussion.
Administration officials and America’s European allies say that rampant corruption and the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan have fueled the resurgence of the Taliban, and that unless Mr. Karzai moves forcefully to tackle those issues, no amount of additional American troops will be able to turn the country around.
Yet many of Mr. Obama’s advisers said they had seen no evidence that Mr. Karzai would follow through on promises to crack down on corruption or the drug trade. Mr. Obama, who met with his advisers again on Wednesday, is said to be particularly skeptical of Mr. Karzai’s resolve.
Mr. Obama himself laid down the stakes last week when he said he wanted “a sense on the part of President Karzai that, after some difficult years in which there has been some drift, that in fact he’s going to move boldly and forcefully forward and take advantage of the international community’s interest in his country to initiate reforms internally. That has to be one of our highest priorities.”
Or else what? White House officials acknowledged this week that they were not planning on using the ultimate cudgel: pulling all American troops. Such a step would certainly get Mr. Karzai’s attention — it might lead to his overthrow because his political survival is dependent on the presence of American troops.
But withdrawing all troops would not serve American interests, officials said; aside from the chaos it could cause in Afghanistan, a pullout could tip the balance in even more volatile Pakistan, where the government is battling Taliban militants.
“What if Karzai doesn’t do what we ask and calls our bluff?” asked Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. “What, do we go home now? If we set up this framework that demands X, Y and Z must be met within whatever time frame, that would only feed the fear and increase the hedging in Pakistan in a way that makes the situation even worse.”
In an interview on Wednesday, senior White House officials said that they had other tools in mind, and that the new Afghan strategy would include goals that Mr. Karzai would be pushed to meet.
New measures will focus on areas like roads, electricity and schools, as well as corruption, the officials said. While they declined to go into many specifics, the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the Afghanistan review is not complete yet, said they had a range of diplomatic, financial and economic options if the targets were not met.
One lever, they said, would be to shift money from Mr. Karzai’s central government to provincial leaders who perform better than their national counterparts. And although a complete withdrawal of American troops is not considered an option, Mr. Obama might endorse a partial withdrawal that would lead to a more limited counterinsurgency strategy initially advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
One official noted that the Karzai government controlled little of Afghanistan on its own, and that even a partial American withdrawal would leave Mr. Karzai with no sustainable political future. Officials said Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan review took weeks longer than expected in part because officials were unhappy about reports of fraud in the Afghan elections, and they implied that even after the new Afghan strategy is announced, details will not be final.
“I’m not saying that we’ll be in a perpetual state of review, but the time the president has taken so far should signal to people that he will not hesitate to take a hard look at things and question assumptions if things are not moving in the right direction,” a senior White House official said.
If Mr. Karzai “falls short of our expectations, there are a lot of things, in terms of our investment, that we could do,” one official said. “Let’s say he appoints someone to a certain ministry or portfolio, and we just consider that person unacceptable. We’re not going to be forced to deal with that person.”
But Mr. Karzai has already called the administration’s bluff on that issue. He appointed a running mate, Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, who has been accused by international groups of corruption and of maintaining an armed militia when he was defense minister. He is now one of Mr. Karzai’s two vice presidents.
Mr. Karzai also ignored American and European objections and allied himself with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is accused of involvement in the killings of thousands of Taliban members held as prisoners of war early in the Afghan conflict. Mr. Obama has called for an investigation of General Dostum, to no avail.
Mr. Karzai may feel compelled to include the men in his government because his alliance with them helped get him elected. Marshal Fahim stood next to Mr. Karzai on Tuesday even as the Afghan president vowed to begin a campaign to clean up the government.
That seeming contradiction left Afghanistan’s international backers seething. On Friday, Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, threatened to pull back support for Mr. Karzai if he did not clean up his act. “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,” he said.