Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:03 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:03 | SYDNEY

Empty threats in Afghanistan


Sam Roggeveen


30 March 2010 10:58

Here's part of what Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell thinks Barack Obama should have said to Hamid Karzai during Obama's flying visit:

Look, I'm a patient man. But sooner or later you're going to have to wake up to the fact that I can't be propping you up forever. The American people's memories of 9/11 are fading, and I'm not as good at playing the terror card as Bush was. Eventually we're just going to declare victory in Afghanistan and go home, just like we're doing in Iraq. We might leave some "support" troops behind, but mostly it's going to be you, left to face the Taliban and the ISI alone.

So here's the choice, Hamid. If you clean up your act now  -- crack down on the corrupt people around you, build up your security forces, and appoint good, competent people to be governors -- I'll be your best friend. I'll use my precious political capital and work both sides of the aisle in Congress to get you the resources you need. I'll lean hard on the Europeans not to go wobbly. But if you don't look me in the eye right now and promise that this time, this moment, will be different than the past -- well, you remember what happened to Najibullah, don't you?

It might be difficult for Hounshell to imagine, but I reckon the Afghan people would find his tone ('Look, we're trying to do you a favour here, Afghanistan. Work with us, OK?') pretty irritating and more than a little condescending. Then there's Hounshell's apparent belief that Obama can achieve something worthwhile with this kind of rhetoric. But does he really think that the only thing stopping Karzai from cleaning up his government is a stern lecture from the US president? If that was true, it surely would have been tried before.

And how believable are threats of withdrawal anyway? Is Karzai expected to take seriously the idea that, if he doesn't stop Afghanistan's slide into corruption and anarchy, the US will leave? Here's what Obama said in his public remarks in Afghanistan:

If this region slides backwards and the Taliban retakes this country, al-Qa'ida can operate with impunity. Then more American lives will be at stake and the Afghan people will lose their chance at progress and prosperity and the world will be significantly less secure.

That sends precisely the opposite message to Karzai: as long as this place is lawless, we cannot leave.