A Pair of Allies, Self-Destructing

The presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan fiddle furiously as the fires of terrorist violence burn across their nations.

Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf suddenly seem more concerned with protecting their positions and perks than with keeping their countries out of the grasp of extremist Islamic forces.

Rule One of counterinsurgency campaigns is that you can't help foreign leaders who won't help themselves. It is time to apply that rule to the recent quixotic and self-defeating actions of both these men.

Last weekend, Karzai abruptly pulled out of a carefully developed plan to install a high-powered U.N. special representative in Kabul to consolidate lagging reconstruction efforts. To make matters worse, the about-face was reportedly abetted by an American diplomat's free-lancing on Karzai's behalf.

Karzai's rejection of Britain's Paddy Ashdown, who gained a reputation as a forceful and imaginative administrator for the United Nations in Bosnia, is at one level a story of diplomatic intrigue and betrayal. But its meaning lies in two broader points.

The long U.S. presidential campaign -- which still has nine months to run -- is a time of danger as well as excitement and education for the nation. Hustling for votes necessarily focuses on promises for the future and castigations of the past. This distracts attention from present crises that are mutating or worsening.

Moreover, at some point, any deal that ties together foreign powers and embattled local leaders -- the former swapping money, arms and troops for the latter's promises of stability at home and political support abroad -- becomes a liability for both. The fate of various South Vietnamese generals and the deposed shah of Iran is part of the American experience with this Third World reality, which may now be surfacing in Central Asia.

Diplomats and soldiers labored for three months to negotiate and codify a strong mandate for Ashdown, who was enthusiastically backed by Washington, London, Berlin and other NATO capitals.

At one point, there was even tentative agreement to give him coordinating responsibility not only for the badly fragmented civilian reconstruction and development efforts of the United Nations and the European Union but also for NATO operations. But this "triple hat" arrangement was whittled down to the U.N. job, largely because of that organization's reservations about working closely with the alliance.

Karzai interviewed Ashdown in Kuwait in December and then approved his nomination in private communications. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon did the same three weeks ago in Madrid. Then came the bolt from the blue while Karzai was attending a business conference in Davos, Switzerland. On second thought, it seemed that Ashdown would remind Afghans of Britain's 19th-century colonial presence in their country -- and possibly complicate Karzai's chances to be reelected next year.

"Both the American and British forces guaranteed to me they knew what they were doing, and I made the mistake of listening to them" at first, Karzai told a British journalist in Davos, putting distance between himself and his benefactors.

Ashdown had no silver bullet for Afghanistan. But this episode points up Karzai's increasingly erratic style of governing as suicide bombings and Taliban attacks on civilians increase. His turnaround creates dangerous new delays in counterinsurgency efforts, which urgently need to be strengthened and clarified, according to an authoritative Atlantic Council report issued last week by Gen. James L. Jones, the retired NATO commander.

The incident will further undermine the international community's dwindling confidence in Karzai, who was installed with U.S. support after the 2001 invasion. Zalmay Khalilzad, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was a key figure in that political process. Khalilzad's closeness to Karzai may explain why he offered little support to Ashdown in contacts at the United Nations while other U.S. officials were pushing hard to save the nomination, according to administration reports.

Khalilzad came under White House fire last week for sitting down beside the Iranian foreign minister at a Davos panel instead of perhaps driving a stake through that worthy's heart. The State Department learned of this outrage only when referred to film appearing on YouTube. That's farce. Free-lancing on the Ashdown appointment was tragedy.

Pakistan's Musharraf was also basking in the Davos glow as part of an interminable tour of Europe even while extremists extended their control in Pakistan's badlands. He is finding it inconvenient now to be seen as America's collaborator in the war on global terrorism, forbidding Washington to pursue that fight kinetically in the big stretches of Pakistan that provide sanctuary for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The United States still has a chance to save Karzai and Musharraf from the extremists. Washington has no chance, however, of saving them from themselves. That task belongs to them.

Jim Hoagland