This is realpolitick, the messy business of accepting the world as it is and making tough choices, not between good and evil, but between bad and less-bad: President Obama went to Afghanistan to warn President Hamid Karzai to clean up the corruption in his government. But Obama knows perfectly well that Karzai will continue to be corrupt.
Equally troubling, Karzai is making common cause with America’s enemies. Recently, he received Iranian President Marmoud Ahmadinejad, who used the occasion to insult the U.S. Karzai depends on U.S. troops to stay in office.
Mr. Obama’s visit to Afghanistan came against a backdrop of tension between Mr. Karzai and the Americans that has not substantially abated since Mr. Karzai was declared the winner of an election tainted by fraud. In the wake of last August’s election, the United Nations and the United States, as well as other NATO countries, demanded that Mr. Karzai make major overhauls in the electoral system, tacitly indicating that they might withhold money for the next election if they did not see changes.
Mr. Karzai recently overhauled the Afghan election complaint commission, but made it less neutral by claiming the right to appoint all five members. Currently, three of the members are appointed by the United Nations. The move infuriated some Western diplomats here who saw it as almost a taunt.
Further aggravating tensions was a conference in London at the end of January at which corruption was a major topic and Western officials again made clear that they felt Mr. Karzai had fallen short. Recently, he has strengthened the anticorruption commission, and the attorney general appears to be moving forward on a handful of high-profile cases involving former government figures. Corruption remains pervasive, however, and Mr. Karzai has not used his position as a bully pulpit to change the culture.
“He’s slipping away from the West,” said a senior European diplomat in Kabul.
Still, the Obama administration has probably chosen the best course: Increase the U.S. troop presence to try to curb the influence of the Taliban; give the Karzai government a chance to spread stability to more of the country; and then get the heck out. That’s the best the U.S. can hope for.
We don’t have the will or the resources to stay in Afghanistan for decades. Even if we did, we probably couldn’t change the country very much.