Just a couple of months ago the pundits were dismissing Secretary Clinton as marginalized.
November 20, 2009
Clinton Seen as Obama’s Key Link to Afghan Leader
By MARK LANDLER
KABUL, Afghanistan — It is far from clear that President Obama can depend on President Hamid Karzai to bring order to this violent country, but it is becoming clear that he will depend on Hillary Rodham Clinton to be his go-between in dealing with the mercurial Afghan leader.
In a visit to Kabul, during which she held a 90-minute, one-on-one session with Mr. Karzai on Wednesday, and in an intense telephone call a few weeks ago in the aftermath of Afghanistan’s election, Secretary of State Clinton has built an unlikely rapport with the Afghan leader, according to administration officials.
It is a new and risky role for Mrs. Clinton — one that thrusts her into the thick of the administration’s most critical international problem, but that also hitches her reputation to a leader who has often proved unreliable. If Mr. Karzai lets down the White House again, Mrs. Clinton, as his principal intermediary with the administration, could find herself damaged along with him.
Mrs. Clinton, who got to know Mr. Karzai in 2005 when she took him to Fort Drum in upstate New York to thank American veterans of the Afghan war, seems to recognize the potential dangers.
“When I came into the administration, I was one of the few people who had a long-term positive relationship with President Karzai,” Mrs. Clinton said in an interview on Thursday, hours after seeing him get sworn in. “I continue to believe he has a tremendous historical opportunity.”
But she quickly added, “That doesn’t mean you make excuses for behavior that you want to see changed; you constantly push back.” In the meeting this week, a senior official said, she bluntly warned Mr. Karzai to crack down on corruption or risk losing American aid.
Her rapport with Mr. Karzai puts her in a distinct minority among senior American officials, some of whom have either clashed with him or, as in the case of Mr. Obama, never developed a relationship with him.
With Mr. Obama planning to announce his decision soon on sending more troops to Afghanistan, Mrs. Clinton has emerged, for better or worse, as the senior official best placed to push Mr. Karzai to help make that policy work. Mr. Karzai appears to appreciate the relationship; he moved up the date of his inauguration to accommodate her schedule, a senior American official said.
As Mr. Karzai begins his new term, Mrs. Clinton has worked to avoid a hectoring tone in her public comments about him. American officials had done too much of that in the past, she said.
Shortly before Mr. Obama took office, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. stalked out of a meeting with Mr. Karzai. More recently, Mr. Karzai reacted badly when the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, asked him what he would do if a runoff election became necessary after the initial round of voting in August.
The American ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, has a workable relationship with Mr. Karzai, officials said. But the two have also had their ups and downs, and anyway, some American officials say the White House needs an interlocutor at a higher level than an ambassador, or even a special envoy, like Mr. Holbrooke.
President George W. Bush used to conduct regular video conference calls with Mr. Karzai from the White House. When Mr. Obama stopped the practice, officials said, it left Mr. Karzai hurt and bewildered.
“It is critical Obama develops a channel to Karzai where hard messages can go both ways,” said Bruce O. Riedel, who helped the administration formulate its initial Afghan policy. “It is time-consuming, but we can’t hope to succeed without a political channel that works.”
Mrs. Clinton “combines the hard-headed strength, the political clout and the human understanding to do it right,” said Mr. Riedel, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Of those qualities, her political bona fides may be the most relevant. When Mr. Karzai was wavering about whether to allow a runoff vote after almost a million of his votes were disqualified, she implored him to acquiesce, arguing that he would emerge with a stronger hand. (In the end, Mr. Karzai’s rival, Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out, making a second round unnecessary.)
In case Mr. Karzai did not get her point, Mrs. Clinton reminded him of her own bitter experience in the 2008 Democratic primaries, losing to Mr. Obama, who later named her the nation’s chief diplomat.
“One of the ways that I talk with President Karzai is in very political terms, because I understand that in politics, you’ve got to make some tough compromises sometimes,” she said.
American officials failed to make allowances for his circumstances in trying to govern an unruly country, she said. “We were trying to hold him to a standard that was not in sync with the historical standard.”
When Mr. Karzai first took office in 2002, she noted, there were one million students in Afghanistan, virtually all boys. Today, there are seven million, 40 percent of them girls. She said Mr. Karzai deserved some credit for that, as well as for other advances during his tenure.
Mrs. Clinton also noted that the United States was hardly a perfect candidate to demand a crackdown on corruption.
Asked about reports in The New York Times that the C.I.A. made payments to a brother of Mr. Karzai, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is suspected of involvement in the drug trade, Mrs. Clinton did not respond directly, but said, “Every country makes compromises, and it behooves you to be humble about pointing fingers.”
“It also is a reminder that we have to do more to support his campaign against corruption,” she added. “We have to facilitate, not impede, the removal and even prosecution of those who are corrupt.”
With Hamid Karzai around for the foreseeable future, the administration has little choice but to accommodate him. So Mrs. Clinton looked for praiseworthy lines in Mr. Karzai’s inaugural speech. If he delivers, she said, he can expect American support for years to come.
“I would imagine, if things go well, that we would be helping with the education and health systems and agriculture productivity long after the military presence had either diminished or disappeared,” she said.