How Do You Solve A Problem Like Hamid Karzai?

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Relations between the U.S. and the Afghan government are becoming severely strained again. Recent moves by Afghan President Hamid Karzai have both surprised and provoked concern in Washington, but options on how to deal with the Afghan leader are limited.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Relations between the United States and the Afghan government are becoming severely strained again. Recent moves by Afghan President Hamid Karzai have both surprised and provoked concern in Washington, D.C.

But as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, options are limited on how to deal with the Afghan leader.

JACKIE NORTHAM: For nearly a decade, Hamid Karzai has been Washington's man in Afghanistan. The 53-year-old was picked to lead the country in late 2001 by the U.S. and its allies following the overthrow of the Taliban. But Paula Newberg, with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, says the U.S. never really treated President Karzai as a politician with a political constituency.

Dr. PAULA NEWBERG (Institute for the Study of Diplomacy): They treated him more as someone who they believe they installed and then was validated by a first election and then maybe or maybe not validated by a second election. But I think the principle has been as long as he's one of ours, we can do this.

NORTHAM: Newberg says the problem nowadays is that Karzai appears less and less of a team player. There are increasing concerns about what Washington sees as his erratic behavior. In just the past few months, Karzai threatened to join the Taliban. He announced he would phase out thousands of private security contractors used to help move equipment and supplies to military bases around the country. And, just recently, the Afghan leader fired a key anti-corruption figure who had played a role in the arrest of a member of Karzai's inner circle, even though fighting corruption is a priority for the U.S.

Westerners who know Karzai well say he has a conspiratorial nature and tends to make rash announcements if he feels he's being criticized or doesn't receive regular reassurance. But Newberg says the U.S. hasn't always given it.

Dr. NEWBERG: Before the last presidential election in Afghanistan, the United States made no effort to disguise the fact that they thought he was incompetent and wanted to replace him with someone else. We are none too subtle in the ways that we deal with partners like this.

NORTHAM: Analysts say the U.S. has since calmed Karzai's fears that he would be overthrown, but that there are still many other simmering problems between the two sides.

Ronald Neumann was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. He says one of the fundamental tensions brewing is over the July 2011 deadline -when the U.S. is due to start withdrawing its troops. Neumann says Karzai is getting conflicting messages about what that means, and so all his political survival skills are kicking in.

Mr. RONALD NEUMANN (Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan): The deadline leaves a profound sense of insecurity. Will the army be ready? How much will the Americans turn over? Will they leave us in the lurch? And when you're talking about survival, you don't gamble on those questions. You assume the worst.

NORTHAM: As that deadline looms, there will be more U.S. pressure on Karzai to curb corruption and help form a viable government.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says Washington is aware Karzai could become more mercurial and has tried several approaches to deal with him.

Mr. BRIAN KATULIS (Center for American Progress): One approach has been the full embrace of President Karzai, and we saw this in the red carpet approach when he visited here in Washington in May. The other method we've tried has been to work around Karzai and build up alternative centers of power.

NORTHAM: Katulis says working around Karzai usually just annoys him and he sees it as undermining his power. Katulis says it's been remarkable that the U.S., after nearly 10 years, still hasn't been able to figure out how to deal with the Afghan leader.

Mr. KATULIS: The U.S., with all of its leverage in Afghanistan, we still haven't picked the lock on how to actually shape the calculations of leaders like Karzai. Karzai, as a leader of a relatively small and poor country, can actually run circles around two administrations in the United States and actually punch above his weight.

NORTHAM: Katulis says part of the problem is there are so many different actors from the U.S. government playing different roles and sending different signals - the military, the U.S embassy, Washington and the CIA. Ambassador Neumann says he got along best with Karzai when he was able to give him an accurate picture of what Washington was thinking, away from the talking points.

Mr. NEUMANN: I spent a lot of time listening to him as well as talking to him. I hope we're listening now. It's important to understand where he's coming from, even if we disagree.

NORTHAM: Without an alternative on the horizon, the U.S. will have to deal with Karzai - and he with them - despite the ups and downs.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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