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.

Related Publications

Aiding Afghan Local Governance: What Went Wrong?

Aiding Afghan Local Governance: What Went Wrong?

Thursday, November 18, 2021

By: Frances Z. Brown

After 20 years of an ambitious, costly international state-building effort, the government of Afghanistan collapsed in the summer of 2021 in a matter of weeks. The Afghan security forces’ remarkably rapid defeat earned significant attention, but the Taliban victory over the internationally backed Afghan republic stemmed equally from deep-seated political and governance factors. Across all the facets of the Western state-building endeavor in Afghanistan, there is now an enormous need to assess how the international project fell so far short of its aims.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global PolicyDemocracy & Governance

Key to Afghan Relief Efforts: Financial Engineering for Private Sector, Economy

Key to Afghan Relief Efforts: Financial Engineering for Private Sector, Economy

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

By: William Byrd, Ph.D.

The U.S. government needs to urgently prioritize saving Afghan lives, meeting basic human needs and stemming the free-fall of the Afghan economy. The unprecedented evacuation of some 100,000 people from Kabul airport in August demonstrated what clear objectives and a whole-hearted, government-wide focus can accomplish under the worst of conditions. While that scale of mobilization is not required now, a similar unity of effort and focus, this time on financial engineering, will be needed to deliver aid to the Afghan people and limit further economic damage in coming months.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment

Winter is coming in Afghanistan. Are the Taliban ready?

Winter is coming in Afghanistan. Are the Taliban ready?

Thursday, November 11, 2021

By: Adam Gallagher

Nearly three months after the Taliban’s rapid takeover, Afghanistan is descending toward one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises with an economy in freefall. As the harsh winter season looms, aid agencies have warned that over half the country’s population — a staggering 22.8 million people — will face acute food insecurity, including 3.2 million children under five. Now in power, the Taliban’s failure to deliver basic services is exacerbating this dire humanitarian situation. But immediate relief is a distant prospect as the Taliban deliberate on how to govern the country and the international community mulls over how to engage and pressure the fledgling government.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & GovernanceHuman Rights

How China Responds to Instability on Its Periphery: Lessons from Afghanistan and Myanmar

How China Responds to Instability on Its Periphery: Lessons from Afghanistan and Myanmar

Monday, November 1, 2021

By: Alison McFarland;  Andrew Scobell, Ph.D.

China’s timid rhetoric and underwhelming actions vis-à-vis recent political upheaval in two different neighboring countries belie the image of a confident and assertive Beijing. What explains this apparent paradox? Despite the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s outward bravado, combined with unprecedented expansion of China’s regional and global activities and presence, Xi Jinping and his Politburo colleagues remain wary when it comes to taking risks abroad. Certainly, when China believes its interests are being directly attacked, such as in recent disputes with Australia and India, the state has opted for riskier, more aggressive moves. But where Beijing is not a direct party to the conflict, caution can override its willingness to take action that would show its hand or put China in a situation where it is not guaranteed to avoid a messy exit, à la the United States in Afghanistan.

Global PolicyConflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications