Afghan Review Gives Obama Leverage Over Karzai

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President Obama is reviewing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. While he does that, a member of an independent think tank believes Obama should use the review as leverage to force Afghan President Karzai to clean up government corruption. Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, talks with Renee Montagne about the leverage the White House has.


President Obama, as we know, is in the middle of reevaluating the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Some of the political uncertainty there has come to an end now that a presidential runoff election has been cancelled and Hamid Karzai officially won reelection. Still, the Obama administration is less than thrilled with Karzai, and the president's congratulations included a pointed reminder that Karzai needs to crack down on corruption. As Mr. Obama considers the possibility of sending more American troops, we asked Andrew Exum to talk about the options. He's a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He spent last summer as a civilian advisor to the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

Mr. ANDREW EXUM (Fellow, Center for a New American Security): Right now, while the United States is still deciding upon what type of presence it's going to have in Afghanistan, we have a degree of leverage over the Afghan government. Hamid Karzai understands that his ability to stay in power is in large part dependent upon the support he receives from the West. If he thinks that he's going to receive more or less support depending on what he does or does not do, then that's the leverage that we have. So I hope that the Obama administration is using this time to not only revisit their assumptions, which I think is a healthy thing to do, but to also exert some leverage over the Karzai regime.

MONTAGNE: Although Republican leaders have been criticizing the president - and some of them pretty fiercely - for the pace of his review, and saying, among other things, that it would endanger troops. You were in uniform and fought in Afghanistan. What do you think? Is it, right at this moment, endangering troops who are there fighting now?

Mr. EXUM: No. When and if the Obama administration commits more troops to Afghanistan, that's going to be a huge psychological boon for the troops in Afghanistan, in the same way that people often understate the psychological importance of the surge in 2007 in Iraq and how it sent a message to the Iraqi people and to the American military that, hey, we're there to stay. If we were to commit more troops to Afghanistan, that would, in a lot of ways, signal a more enduring presence.

MONTAGNE: Do you expect it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better?

Mr. EXUM: What's important to note when you talk about the Afghans is these are a people who are suffering en masse from PTSD. The Afghans have suffered through three decades of violence, and unfortunately I don't think that that violence is going to end anytime soon. I think that the worst case scenario from the perspective of Western interests that the Taliban takes back over Kabul and that we have a state ruled by the Taliban. I have a tough time seeing Western policymakers allowing that to happen, but I also think that any other strategy in Afghanistan besides a comprehensive strategy right now would almost certainly fail and condemn Afghanistan to another, at least, decade of conflict. And that's very unfortunate for both U.S. interests, but also the people of Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: What would you say needs to be done by the Karzai government in this window of opportunity?

Mr. EXUM: Right now, we should have two concerns going forward after the Afghan elections. The first should be the composition of the Afghan government. We should ensure that those ministries that are key in our mind as far as building up key Afghan institutions, such as the Ministry of Defense, we should ensure that competent technocrats are in these ministries. We should also make clear to Hamid Karzai that we have a black list, in other words, that those whose involvement in the Afghan government going forward would mean a reduced involvement on the part of the U.S. and its allies.

MONTAGNE: That black list that you would suggest would also include his vice president, Mohammad Fahim: warlord accused of many crimes.

Mr. EXUM: Yeah. I think the important thing is first off, in Afghanistan, we're going to have to be dealing with people - Hamid Karzai is one of those people -that we would not like to deal with under ideal circumstances. But having said that, we need to make sure that we're dealing with people that are effective and committed towards building up key institutions within the Afghan government as we are. So if we don't have commitment within the Afghan state, then we've got a big problem.

MONTAGNE: Andrew Exum is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Thank you very much.

Mr. EXUM: Thank you very much.

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MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, a conversation on the challenges of the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship with Senator John Kerry.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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