Barack Obama’s appalling habit of kicking his allies
So he flew 13 hours non-stop to Kabul to personally scold his host about not doing enough to tackle corruption in Afghanistan.
You will be forgiven for thinking that Barack Obama’s host, Hamid Karzai, didn’t have to worry about taliban types conducting brazen urban warfare right in the middle of Kabul city, or managing a tenuous web of relationships with warlords aligned against the Taliban. And you don’t have to condone corruption to understand that in a near-anarchic war-zone, with a barely visible state apparatus, the use of term ‘corruption’ itself is debatable. The fight in Afghanistan is about putting in place a state where it would make sense to use the word ‘corruption’ in the same manner as you would in Sweden or California, but for that to happen, one side—the desirable side—must prevail over the other, undesirable side. Until that time, it’s absurd to talk about anti-corruption.
What makes it worse is that President Obama, in the amateurish manner that has become his hallmark—witness the Netanyahu episode—chose to publicly undermine the credibility of the one person whose legitimacy is critical for the success of the US enterprise in Afghanistan. Lectures on tackling corruption need not have been released to the international media. Perhaps Mr Obama was playing to his home crowd. But then, it’s pretty easy to score points by kicking your ally in the groin. Pashtuns—and not just Mr Karzai—have long memories.
Mr Obama’s grandstanding is all the more ironic because, despite providing the funds, the United States is primarily responsible for the weakness of the Afghan government. By refusing to route funds through the Afghan government, not only did the Washington deprive the local government of capacity, it deprived it of legitimacy as well.
There is little on practical grounds to suggest that corruption is big enough an issue for Mr Obama to chastise Mr Karzai so publicly. What about principle, then? Well, if it is principle, it seems to be a very geography-specific type, constrained by the Durand Line. All that aid to Pakistan and no lectures on corruption at all? If Hamed Wardak’s NCL Holdings transports US military containers, so does Pakistani army’s NLC. If NCL finances shady types to ensure that the trucks reach their destination, so does the NLC. [See this post on how the racket works from Karachi to Khyber] Yet Mr Obama has not let it be known that he brought up the issue of corruption with President Asif Ali Zardari or General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
It is no secret that there is no love lost between Mr Obama and Mr Karzai (and there is none between Richard Holbrooke and Mr Karzai). But allowing personal chemistry to cloud an important relationship is a sign of political immaturity. Perhaps Mr Obama has decided that Mr Karzai is irrelevant to US policy in Afghanistan. If so, that would be an expensive mistake.