WASHINGTON — Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long accused the Obama administration of trying to secretly engineer his political downfall. Turns out he may be right.
Lost in the political controversy surrounding former defence secretary Robert Gates’ new memoir is a fascinating account of a failed administration attempt to ensure that Karzai was defeated in the 2009 Afghan elections. Gates is harshly critical of the move, which he derides as a "clumsy and failed putsch" that did significant damage to the U.S.-Afghan relationship.
Karzai’s clear distrust of President Barack Obama, regardless of the cause, has contributed to the administration’s inability to win Karzai’s support for a security pact allowing for a long-term American troop presence in Afghanistan. With talks stalled, senior White House officials say they may withdraw all U.S. personnel from Afghanistan if a deal isn’t reached soon.
The central players in the backchannel effort to unseat Karzai, according to Gates, were Richard Holbrooke, then the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl Eikenberry, then the U.S. ambassador to Kabul.
Gates writes that Holbrooke regularly spoke about the need to create "a level playing field" that would ensure all presidential candidates were given protective details, transportation to campaign events throughout the country, and the ability to convey their messages to independent Afghan newspapers, radio stations and TV outlets. In reality, Gates writes, Holbrooke didn’t just want a level playing field. He wanted one tilted against Karzai.
"Holbrooke was doing his best to bring about the defeat of Karzai," Gates writes. "What he really wanted was to have enough credible candidates running to deny Karzai a majority in the election, thus forcing a runoff in which he could be defeated."
The two men, according to the former defence chief, held highly publicized meetings with Karzai’s opponents, attended their rallies, made a point of being photographed with them, and even offered them unspecified advice. Gates writes that Karzai quickly became aware of the U.S. efforts to unseat him and ultimately cut deals with the country’s warlords to win their support in the vote.
The resulting election was dirty, even by Afghanistan’s standards. It was marred by violence and large scale, barely hidden, vote-rigging. International monitors later concluded that nearly a quarter of the votes cast were fraudulent. The purported U.S. effort to unseat Karzai that Gates describes also failed: Karzai didn’t win an outright majority, but he prevailed in the second round of voting.
"It was all ugly: our partner, the president of Afghanistan, was tainted, and our hands were dirty as well." he writes.
Gates’ harsh account of his time in the Obama White House, particularly his ferocious criticism of Vice-President Joe Biden, has already prompted a fierce counterattack from current and former administration officials. White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden, who lived in Kabul as a senior adviser to Eikenberry during the 2009 elections, says Gates’ accusations of a concerted effort to unseat Karzai were "just categorically false."
"The U.S.’s interest was in a stable Afghanistan, with credible democratic elections — not in helping any candidate win or lose," she said.
Stephen Biddle, an Afghanistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Gates’ account bolsters Karzai’s long-held belief that the U.S. government was trying to ensure he lost the election.
"This perception on his part was a major contributor to his growing disaffection with the U.S. ever since," Biddle said. "The result was the worst of both worlds — Karzai was re-elected, and we now looked like we’d attempted to get rid of him and failed. Not good."
Gates closes his description of the purported administration move to unseat Karzai with an account of a tense exchange with the special United Nations Representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide. The two men were seated next to each other during a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization devoted to the Afghan elections.
"Before speaking publicly, he whispered to me that while he was only going to say that there was blatant foreign interference in the election, he wanted me to know he had in mind specifically the United States and Holbrooke," Gates writes.