Two opinion columns recently published in The Washington Post regarding the early-April "anti-foreigner" outbursts by Afghan President Hamid Karzai - one by Michael E. O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution and the other by Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek International - were unified in their rebuke of the Obama administration for mishandling the situation. Both Mr. O'Hanlon and Mr. Zakaria are highly educated men and considered top-tier intellectuals of this generation. Remarkable, then, that they should convey so complex a situation in curiously simplistic terms, failing even to mention some of the more germane factors impacting the situation, ultimately causing them to reach flawed conclusions.
Implicit in their argument was that, yes, Mr. Karzai does have some work to do, but the U.S. administration was wrong in making public statements regarding Mr. Karzai's insufficient progress toward fighting corruption. Mr. Zakaria wrote that the Obama administration "is undermining its own chances of success by constantly criticizing, weakening, and undercutting America's only credible partner in the country, Hamid Karzai." Mr. O'Hanlon opined that "browbeating Karzai, especially in public, does not work. A more respectful approach has proved effective." But does the evidence support their contention? I would argue that the facts lead one, convincingly, to quite a different conclusion.
On June 27, 2008, The Washington Post reported that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had just flown to Kabul to "meet with Karzai, who is facing mounting international criticism over his performance. As she traveled to Islamabad on Monday, Rice hailed Karzai as 'an extraordinary leader' and said the United States would 'back him fully.' " Effusive praise in public, combined with demands in private - which were a common practice throughout the George W. Bush administration - obviously did not reap the benefit then that Mr. O'Hanlon and Mr. Zakaria suggest would work now. Placing this situation in the context of time, however, reveals how restrained and patient the current U.S. administration has been.
Had President Obama's recent visit taken place in the first two or three years after Mr. Karzai took office, a more gentle, private approach to the Afghan president would have been appropriate. But as the following excerpts from Kabul-based media demonstrate, Mr. Karzai has been chastised for the better part of a decade, even from his own country - and yet by all estimates, the corruption is far worse today than when he first took office. To wit:
December 2002:"Therefore, if Mr. Karzai is intending to establish a popular government, he should launch a thorough and continuous struggle against administrative corruption and bribery to uproot them and allow transparency, responsibility and commitment to duty to prevail in the state organs." (Mosharekat-e Melli, in Kabul)
March 2003: "His Excellency Hamed Karzai, in his speech, underscored this dangerous virus in the community and added, 'We will stop the corruption and bribery." After one year and two months, no serious intention seems to have been undertaken by the authorities against those elements of bureaucracy and administrative corruption." (Farda, in Kabul)
May 2004: "Administrative corruption and misuse is raging in every office nowadays. ... The people are crying out, on radio and in newspapers and other mass media, against lawlessness and abuse. However, the administrative and government sector of Afghanistan is moving so slowly towards improvement that it is almost imperceptible." (Anis, in Kabul)
October 2006: "Sebghatollah Mojaddedi, speaker of the Upper House and head of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, told a press conference that he would stop cooperating with President Karzai unless he put an end to official corruption." (Tolo TV, Kabul)
September 2007: "Massive administrative corruption is one the issues for which the government of Afghanistan has, many times, been criticized by the international community." (Cheragh, Kabul)
According to the Congressional Budget Office, through fiscal year 2010, the United States will have spent more than $350 billion in Afghanistan. Further, as of April 13, 1,042 of America's sons and daughters had lost their lives in Afghanistan and a further 5,188 had been wounded. Soon, America will be underwriting the security of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with more than 100,000 uniformed service members and a similar number of civilian contractors and government employees. For the better part of a decade, the United States has accorded the president of Afghanistan every honor and courtesy, lavished upon him unprecedented levels of support and given him every chance to succeed; considering the scale of our investment and the paltry level of Afghan deliverables, the time for "gentle prodding" has passed.
Perhaps when next Mr. O'Hanlon and Mr. Zakaria provide their expert opinion on bilateral relations between the U.S. and Afghan governments, they might want to keep in mind the near-decade of patience and vast amount of national treasure the United States already has sacrificed on behalf of the president of Afghanistan - and consider how many more Americans will die if governmental corruption is not rapidly brought under control.
Daniel L. Davis, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. He fought in Desert Storm in 1991, served in Afghanistan in 2005 and in Iraq in 2009. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.