The U.S. relationship with Afghan president Hamid Karzai deteriorated from a warm start to suspicion and hostility over the course of Karzai’s term. Intertwining personal and political considerations, this report examines how aspects of the Afghan political culture that is part of Karzai’s life experience, combined with a counterproductive U.S. approach that unnecessarily aggravated the situation, led to a downward spiral of miscommunication and mistrust that continued to the end of Karzai’s presidency in September 2014.

Summary

  • The U.S. relationship with Afghan president Hamid Karzai deteriorated from a warm start to suspicion and hostility over the course of Karzai’s term. Both sides bear responsibility, and the United States can learn lessons from this.
  • Karzai brought with him to office little experience in governing but many political habits derived from years of Afghan tribal and war politics, particularly power balancing rather than institution building and extreme suspicion about the other side’s motives when he felt threatened.
  • U.S. military and economic dominance meant that relations would always be unbalanced. Karzai was left with appointments, often of corrupt individuals, as a means to create a political base.
  • U.S. policy changed frequently, as did the way Karzai was handled and the advice he was given. Afghan sovereignty was often ignored. For lengthy periods U.S. goals were unclear, not only to Karzai but to many other Afghans.
  • Afghan sovereignty was frequently ignored, and with it Karzai’s dignity and position as a leader—a particularly threatening problem in view of Afghanistan’s history.

About the Report

This report examines the U.S. relationship with Afghan president Hamid Karzai from its warm start to the suspicion and hostility of the end of Karzai’s term. The report traces the causes of the deterioration to U.S. actions and Karzai’s world view and experience. Funded by the United States Institute of Peace, the report is based on research, interviews with senior Afghan and U.S. officials, and the personal interactions of the author with Karzai over ten years.

About the Author

Ronald E. Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and previously served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, following previous ambassadorships in Bahrain and Algeria. He is the author of, among other works, the book The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan.

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