Afghans Don't Expect Petraeus To Change Strategy

Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group talks to Renee Montagne about what the change in U.S. command means in Afghanistan, and how it will play among Afghans. Rondeaux is the group's senior analyst in Kabul.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We are going to carry the conversation now to Afghanistan and to Candace Rondeaux. She's a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Kabul.

And thanks for joining us.

Ms. CANDACE RONDEAUX (International Crisis Group): Thanks for having me, Renee.

MONTAGNE: After the Rolling Stone article came out, Afghanistan President Karzai spoke out in support of General McChrystal. He spoke of him quite warmly, as a matter of fact, and as someone who cared about and understood Afghans. What was their relationship like?

Ms. RONDEAUX: Yeah. The relationship between President Karzai and General McChrystal was very close, certainly a lot closer than Karzai had had with any of his other American interlocutors. Of course, it's well-known that there was some level of animosity or at least mistrust between Ambassador Holbrooke and President Karzai, and of course Ambassador Eikenberry.

Now, for Karzai, the most comfortable relationship is one in which he can somewhat manipulate his interlocutor. You know, tough love is not something that flies very well in Afghanistan in general. Culturally speaking, you know, there's not a lot of room for public displays of force, as it were, diplomatically speaking. So it's no surprise that Karzai would have a stronger relationship with somebody like McChrystal, who really needed him as a partner in order to make his counterinsurgency strategy work here.

MONTAGNE: And Karzai, though, very quickly embraced the new commander, General Petraeus yesterday. Does that suggest that the relationship between the U.S. and Karzai will not suffer with McChrystal gone? And I guess you can also say, and does it matter?

Ms. RONDEAUX: Well, I mean there's no doubt that General McChrystal's departure from the scene is going to have a major impact on, one, momentum of the mission - but two, right now Karzai's in a situation where he's not certain that his international partners are in it for the full long haul. Given that, this kind of change of personnel, as stunning a blow as it was, is certainly going to have little effect in the administration.

And while I think that there's probably enormous respect for General Petraeus because his reputation precedes him, Karzai certainly will be stepping carefully until he can feel out for sure where General Petraeus stands, both on strategy, but also on this tough love issue. Because, you know, it's not clear necessarily that General Petraeus will carry the same kind of social license that General McChrystal did while he was working with Karzai. It's not clear that General Petraeus shared the same idea of Karzai as a credible partner as General McChrystal did. One way or the other here, this is a major bump and it will certainly not go unnoticed in relations between Karzai and the U.S. government.

MONTAGNE: You know, when you speak of tough love, you're speaking of the fact that when President Obama came into office, he took a much tougher position towards Karzai, as has special envoy Richard Holbrooke, and a very tough posture against Karzai, which he's now changed quite a bit. But that's what you're talking about with tough love. It didn't work very well with President Karzai.

Ms. RONDEAUX: It did not work well, but it's not because tough love is not needed. I think probably the issue was by starting out in the relationship where, you know, the message was a concern that, you know, Afghanistan has become a corrupt narco-state under the leadership of Karzai, you know, Obama left himself very little room to maneuver. So unfortunately there's no way to go back now.

But the question is now, is there enough space to maneuver, given all the different shifts that have taken place in the Obama administration on where Karzai stands in relation to the strategy? I think it can be said that, you know, Karzai is presenting as a very weak partner overall. The question is whether you say that publicly or not, right? And what the effect is in the situation in Afghanistan where politically Karzai's power and (unintelligible) legitimacy is so precarious at this stage.

MONTAGNE: Are there, though, new opportunities here with a new commander and in particular one as respected as Petraeus?

Ms. RONDEAUX: There are always new opportunities when new leadership comes in. But at this stage, I think now we have seen now a number of political casualties in the last 18 months out of this strategy here in Afghanistan under U.S. direction. So this is a crucible. For anybody who wants to come to Afghanistan to make their mark, they should be prepared to be tested to the ultimate limits, you know, of their strength and their weaknesses.

MONTAGNE: Candace Rondeaux is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Kabul. Thanks very much for joining us.

Ms. RONDEAUX: Thanks for having me.

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