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U.S. should grow up and work with Karzai

  • Fareed Zakaria says U.S. at odds with Hamid Karzai over election and recent statements
  • Zakaria says Obama administration's posture with Karzai is self-indulgent
  • CNN analyst believes there's no credible alternative leader right now
  • Zakaria: U.S. should partner with Karzai rather than rebuke him

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN U.S. on Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET and CNN International at 2 and 10 p.m. Central European Time / 5 p.m. Abu Dhabi / 9 p.m. Hong Kong.

New York (CNN) -- The Obama administration is making a mistake by sending Afghan President Hamid Karzai the forceful and repeated message that it's not happy with his regime, says analyst Fareed Zakaria.

He says the United States has been voicing "great frustration and discomfort with Karzai. I just think it's the wrong message. It's self-indulgent. Yes there are lots of problems with Karzai, but we don't have any other options. And it seems like the grown-up thing to do would be to come to terms with it, grin and bear it, and make the best of the relationship."

The Obama administration's concern was heightened last year by questions about the integrity of Karzai's re-election. Recently Karzai said the election irregularities were due to foreigners seeking a "puppet government" in Afghanistan. He also told tribal leaders that the coalition forces, led by the United States, wouldn't attack the Taliban in Kandahar "until you say we can."

Zakaria points out that the United States has had equally serious questions about Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq but didn't publicly rebuke him. "With an American military that was keeping him in power, he was tolerating and some would say even encouraging Shiite militias that were killing American soldiers, that were certainly engaging in mass slaughter of Sunnis, exacerbating the problems of civil war and extremism in Iraq, and we ... pressured him privately, but publicly the position was always that he was prime minister of Iraq and we were working with the government of Iraq."

Zakaria, author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," spoke to CNN on Thursday. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: What's causing the friction between the Obama administration and Hamid Karzai?

Fareed Zakaria: Well, Karzai is a very erratic character, and he has made a number of strange comments that seem to criticize the United States and criticize even U.S. policies, many of which he was involved in making, such as the military operations. So there is certainly cause for puzzlement in Washington.

CNN: Is the administration handling the situation in a productive fashion?

Zakaria: I don't think so. I think that the administration is not facing up to the issue squarely. We need a local ally in Afghanistan. That person has to be a Pashtun, because the Pashtuns are the single largest ethnic group in the country and it also makes up the vast majority of the Taliban, and therefore somebody who is not a Pashtun would lack credibility in the country at large and particularly with the Pashtun population whom we are trying to win over. Karzai is a credible Pashtun leader, and whatever the details of the election, he has more support than any other Pashtun leader at this moment.

So the administration really faces the choice of either working with him as a partner or trying to find an alternative. Since there is no alternative, the logic would suggest that we work with him as a partner. Yet what the administration has done since the beginning of its term is to express grave doubts privately about Karzai, some doubts even publicly from various, very senior people in the administration, to criticize him in various ways, to signal displeasure in various ways.

All of the concerns of the administration are completely valid, about Karzai's ineffectiveness and about corruption, but ... we either work with Karzai as a partner or we replace him. Since there is no plausible path to replacing Karzai, we need to come to grips with reality and work with Karzai and not undermine him. Undermining him, as far as I can tell, does nothing for U.S. strategy. It creates an angry Karzai and a dysfunctional central government.

CNN: And does it demoralize the U.S. military in the sense that they're fighting for a government that the U.S. doesn't have confidence in?

Zakaria: I don't know. The military tends to be very careful about not expressing a political opinion on these things. It has the effect of further undermining the credibility of Karzai, because if there is no path to replacing him, all that the constant drumbeat of criticism does is create a very compromised figure at the head of the Afghan government. And it can't be good for the military to have to be trying to defend and extend the authority of that government.

CNN: How is the coalition effort proceeding in Afghanistan since President Obama ordered what is, in effect, a surge of troops?

Zakaria: Well the military is doing a superb job. You can see the strength of the U.S. military at this kind of counterinsurgency. It is battle-hardened, it has learned lessons from Iraq. It is proceeding very effectively ... the strategy has always been "clear, hold and build." We know that U.S. troops can clear areas of the Taliban. We know that they can hold them. The question then becomes: Can they transfer that holding operation to Afghan forces and can the Afghan government then build? And this latter part of the strategy has always been the real problem .... the success of the operation will ultimately depend on that part of the strategy being implemented well.

CNN: And that will take Karzai?

Zakaria: Sure, it's fundamentally Karzai's responsibility. Let's be honest, it's difficult to do because you're talking about a government in Kabul being able to have a kind of effectiveness and reach that no government in Kabul has had for a long time. Let's remember that this is a government that's been racked by war and civil war for the last 25 years. ...

There's a certain self indulgence here, in believing that we can express ourselves on all these issues relating to democracy and human rights and we can have an effective Afghan government and we can have a military strategy that is coherent and we can deal with corruption.

In Afghanistan, unfortunately, we have to choose. All of these things are not likely to be possible. We are not going to get a Jeffersonian Democrat who is also a Pashtun who is also honest and incorruptible and also has widespread credibility within the Pashtun population. ...

Let's assume that everything people say about Karzai is true. Does anyone seriously think that the alternative would be a deeply honest, credible Pashtun leader who has great reservoirs of loyalty among the Afghan people and is a competent administrator? If that person exists and could even remotely win an election in Afghanistan, we should be busy promoting his candidacy, but I don't see that person.

CNN: Do you think the fact that Karzai started making overtures to the Iranians is a factor at all?

Zakaria: He was doing that in a fit of pique with the Americans, who disinvited him from a visit to the White House.

I think disinviting him from the White House was the original mistake. This is not a serious way to deal with your partner. There are things we don't like about what many governments do. We don't summarily withdraw their invitations to the White House.

This is a kind of arrogance and unilateralism that one would normally associate with the Bush administration.

Yes Karzai responded poorly, as he often does when he's pressed. But again let's remember that the Iraqi prime minister Maliki invited [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to Baghdad several times and treated him lavishly and we tolerated that.

CNN: Some have said that this is reminiscent of the Diem regime in Vietnam.

Zakaria: Every situation that the United States is in presents you with that dilemma because, by Jeffersonian standards, none of these guys measure up. Diem didn't measure up, Maliki doesn't measure up, Karzai doesn't measure up, the South Korean leaders didn't measure up in the 1970s when we were supporting them, [ex-Philippine leader Ferdinand] Marcos didn't measure up. And in each case, the question that's the right one to ask is whether there's an alternative. In the case of Marcos, there was, and if there is, it becomes a plausible strategy to shift support and encourage a more credible and more legitimate candidate to emerge.

In this particular case, there's no such candidate on the horizon.