After President Hamid Karzai said to Secretary Clinton that he was still committed to working with the U.S., the Wall Street Journal reported that he told "60 to 70 Afghan lawmakers" something entirely different:
At one point, Mr. Karzai suggested that he himself would be compelled to join the other side — that is, the Taliban — if the parliament did not back his controversial attempt to take control of the country's electoral watchdog from the United Nations, according to three of those who attended the meeting, including a close ally of the president...
Mr. Karzai blamed the lawmakers' resistance to his move on a foreign conspiracy, they said...
They quoted Mr. Karzai as saying the lawmakers were being used by Western officials who want to install a "puppet government" in Afghanistan....
He said that the only reason that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are fighting the Afghan government is that they see foreigners having the final say in everything," said one of the lawmakers.
President Karzai has almost everything backwards. His government lacks legitimacy precisely because he committed widespread electoral fraud to win the Presidential election last August. The United Nations, the United States, and NATO ignored the fraud in the August elections and congratulated Karzai for his victory--having a successful election despite Taliban threats was more important than the process.
Plus, Karzai is wrong to suggest that Afghans join the Taliban because he can't rig the elections enough--Afghans often support the Taliban because of the corruption and inefficiency of his government. Offering dispute resolution is perhaps the most basic service a government can provide. And the Afghan government can't do that, according to a policy memo from the Kennedy School:
The Taliban has managed to carve its way into the social fabric by resolving civic issues on behalf of the people in a timely and hassle-free manner. Through official government channels, those same villagers would have to pay numerous bribes and experience significant delays in getting their issues resolved. In addition, the Taliban are able to provide transparent justice when dealing with criminals, whereas the government often releases convicted criminals in exchange for bribes and other private dealings. The majority of petty crimes, including robbery, vandalism, and occasionally more severe crimes, like kidnappings, are committed by the illegitimate hoodlum groups who are often prosecuted by the Taliban itself. Government corruption and inefficiency has opened the door for the Taliban to legitimize itself among the people of Afghanistan.
The Taliban are not a great alternative to the central government--for sure, some members of the Taliban also do steal money and kill people working with the U.S. But they are in competition with the central government for legitimacy. This dynamic makes American counterinsurgency strategy difficult, since it relies on convincing the people that the central government will protect the people more than the insurgency.
For the Karzai government, the fish rots from the head.
Apparently, President Obama's surprise meeting with President Karzai has not solved any problems. For all of my columns and more, you can follow me on Twitter. I also answer e-mail sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Photo Credit: White House Flickr, Pete Souza FTW)