U.S. Tensions Rise With Afghanistan's Karzai
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Guy Raz is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan last weekend to see the troops, but the other order of business during his six-hour touchdown was a fairly tense conversation with the country's president, Hamid Karzai, about political corruption and cronyism.
Karzai began his second term last fall under widespread allegations of voter fraud. Since then, he seized control of the watchdog group that nullified more than a million fraudulent votes.
On Thursday, Karzai made a fiery speech railing against the West and the U.N. saying foreigners want to install a puppet government, that they were responsible for rigging the election.
President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): (Through translator) There was fraud in the presidential and provincial election with no doubt there was massive fraud. This wasn't fraud by Afghans, but a fraud of foreigners.
WERTHEIMER: The Obama administration called Karzai's speech genuinely troubling, saying the White House would seek clarification. Then on Friday, the Afghan leader called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wondering why U.S. officials seemed upset.
To help us with the question what to do about Karzai, I'm joined by Jean MacKenzie. She's the Afghanistan correspondent for the GlobalPost. Jean MacKenzie, welcome.
Ms. JEAN MacKENZIE (Afghanistan Correspondent, GlobalPost): Thank you, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: This has been quite a week for President Karzai.
Ms. MacKENZIE: Yes, it has.
WERTHEIMER: What do you think all these mean?
Ms. MacKENZIE: Well, Hamid Karzai is the artful dodger of international politics and I think we've seen that very well this week. This has been his pattern for many years. His speech on Thursday was obviously geared towards the domestic audience, where anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism plays very well. He is exploiting attitudes and fears, prejudices among his constituency to shore up his own political power at home, and then being conciliatory with his international partners in a different form.
WERTHEIMER: One of the things that apparently he and President Obama had an unhappy conversation about was the number of relatives that he has appointed to the government and the efforts that he has made to sort of shield the warlords in Afghanistan from any repercussions for anything that they have done.
Ms. MacKENZIE: That is true, but to give him his due, he's in a very difficult position. Many of those warlords and many indeed of his relatives are in close cooperation with the West and with the United States of America.
So on the one hand, we are hammering Karzai for corruption. On the other hand, it is some of our own actions and policies that are keeping those people in power.
WERTHEIMER: To some extent, it works for us, I guess. What about the reaction here, though, and among other countries that are contributing troops to the effort in Afghanistan? There were some comments after his speech in which he said there's the sort of thin curtain between invasion and assistance. People are sort of raising questions of why are we doing this.
Ms. MacKENZIE: And I think that's a very legitimate question. But we also have to realize that in terms of international commitment to Afghanistan, it's very definitely on the wane. Canada will be out by the middle of next year. The Netherlands is on its way out. There is a growing movement in the United Kingdom to get out of Afghanistan.
I think, in some cases, we are seeing the international community seizing on these statements and these actions of Karzai as a way of justifying what their policies are going towards anyway, which is getting out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.
WERTHEIMER: But for the United States, do you think that the United States' national security reasons for being in Afghanistan first instance are still relevant? Does the United States still have a major interest in staying?
Ms. MacKENZIE: I'm not sure that national security is our primary reason for being in Afghanistan nor was it ever our primary reason for being in Afghanistan.
Our national security concerns are quite small. We have broad agreement that al-Qaida is no longer a major player in Afghanistan. And we are fighting a war against the Taliban, who were not the primary movers behind 9/11. What we have is a very big political reason for being in Afghanistan. We went in there under the guise of the war on terror, but moved into nation building. Our mission has become very foggy there.
WERTHEIMER: Where do you see this going?
Ms. MacKENZIE: That's the million-dollar question or the several billion-dollar question, I guess, from the American perspective. Hamid Karzai is the president of a small, poor, very dysfunctional country who seems to have run rings around the largest economy in the world.
We cannot afford to let Hamid Karzai fail. We cannot afford to let Afghanistan fail.
WERTHEIMER: Why not?
Ms. MacKENZIE: Because then we would have to admit that the past eight-and-a-half years have been an exercise in futility. If Afghanistan can fail with no adverse consequences to the United States, then what have we been doing for eight-and-a-half years? I think that is the political consideration. We want to get out of Afghanistan - I think that's clear. But we want to get out of Afghanistan with some sort of semblance of victory or at least achievement under our belt.
WERTHEIMER: Jean MacKenzie is the Afghanistan correspondent for the GlobalPost. Thank you very much for your help.
Ms. MacKENZIE: My pleasure, Linda.
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