President Karzai, Mangoes and Trust

No, I have never eaten a mango Mr. President.   Then let me show you how Lieutenant.

—The Arg Palace, Kabul, Spring 2003


(Afghan President’s cabinet meeting room, 2002)

Being the leader of the Afghan people is a dangerous and notoriously difficult  job. For centuries kings, presidents, and prime ministers have attempted to keep the majority of the population supportive of their policy and decisions. Few succeeded and many died trying.

In the Fall of 2002 I met Hamid Karzai who was then the appointed president of an interim government. He would hold that position until the 2004 election when he was democratically elected. Karzai had been president for about one year when my boss came to Kabul to assist the Afghan government.

For the next year Major General Karl Eikenberry would liaison between the Afghan government, the U.S. Government, NATO, and the United Nations. In his duty to help the Afghans build/reform its Security Sector he would meet with and offer advice to 1 or more Afghan leaders in the capital and around the country on a daily basis. As his right-hand-man, and with the help of my trusted friend Dr. Najib, I organized and attended 99% of his meetings.

(Painting from the old presidential chief of staff office.  Buzkashi -pulling the goat- is the national sport.)

The Afghan government was made up of dozens of men (plus a couple women) with competing agendas. It  operated much like the Buzkashi match above and below. Lots of people charging about as they fought over a calf carcass that was slowly being torn apart. The rules were simple but often ignored.

Enter a quiet and calm Hamid Karzai the president charged with guiding and refereeing the ongoing Buzkashi match called Afghanistan.

(National Buzkashi match 14 February 2002, Kabul)

We met with him every week or so to keep him updated on security and governance progress and to alert him to lions in the path. He was smart and building confidence in his ability to lead the country. The job was more than most could handle but he was pulling it off in a way few Afghans could.   He was getting the job done with an illiterate population, daily widespread violence, thousands of foreign soldiers operating in his country that didn’t take orders from him, a decades-old culture of corruption being fueled by millions in AID dollars, and a government full of people that were trying to fulfill their own agendas. Oh yeah and a growing enemy force being aided by a neighboring country that was trying to kill him and destroy his fledgling government.

The last thing President Karzai needed was more problems, but problems in the form of strangers bearing advice was the one thing America would give him throughout his three administrations; regardless of what he asked for.

During his first administration (2001-2004) many different military leaders and civilian officials would come and go in Kabul.  Those that were actually stationed in the country were mostly helpful to President Karzai.  Those who flew in and out of the country with lots of great ideas, critiques, and subtle demands were not helpful at all.

There became a divide between the Americans stationed forward in Afghanistan and those based in far away headquarters and offices.  President Karzai would see this divide grow on his watch and get more and more frustrated with all Americans; mostly due to the interactions with the visiting team.

Interactions with President Bush were a different scenario for President Karzai.  Unlike visiting Cabinet members, Congressmen, and other senior U.S. Government officials Bush was a peer to him that showed him respect due to a sitting President.  Likely this is because the two basically grew into their new positions together and both felt the weight of command and saw the possible failures that could happen very clearly.  As senior leaders Karzai and Bush would speak nearly every week.  Bush would stop to see him when he visited his military and diplomatic leaders in the region.

In the meantime an endless caravan of well-meaning but disruptive members of the American government were not making life any easier for Karzai or the American forward team assigned to Kabul.  Congressional delegations consumed the precious time and limited resources of the Afghan government officials, the Americans tasked to give them a tour, and the security forces required to get them safely around the country.  But more importantly they wore the patience of President Karzai unraveling hard-gained trust.  Visiting U.S. Cabinet leaders were not as time consuming due to the size of their elements but they often also brought new demands that they felt the Afghan government should meet further eroding relations with every visit.

Karzai had no shortage of advice in Kabul.  The last thing he needed was naive thoughts from thousands of miles away given by a legislator of cabinet official.  He was after all a President of a Country not a local mayor.  I doubt he was very impressed with his visitors.  I would not have been if I were in his shoes.

From election day in 2004 when Karzai started his first full presidential term until January 2009 this pattern of distraction on the part of the United States continued.  President Karzai was daily beaten-up by his own government leaders and his constituents for his own leadership failures (which are well documented elsewhere in facts and assumptions).  He was increasingly skewered by his fellow Afghans for the actions of the growing number of foreign troops stationed across the country as well as contracted security forces guarding all the foreigners that descended on the country to help.

In January 2009 President Obama was sworn into office and he brought aboard a new cast of American officials that needed to get their heads around the Afghan war.  Because Obama had decided Afghanistan was the “good war” compared to the bad one in Iraq, everyone that was able to went to Kabul.  Numerous studies were undertaken to map out a new U.S. policy for the Afghan war.  That meant more distraction for President Karzai and his government leaders and of course more advice.

Along with steady increases of American and Allied soldiers, which meant more battles and an increase in civilian casualties (mostly due to Taliban violence not Coalition forces), the U.S. Embassy presence increased four-fold.  The other Embassies, International Organizations and NGOs also increased in number.  The money was great for some Afghans, but again this all decreased the amount of time Afghan leaders spent fixing Afghan problems as the number of visitors demanding hours from their day increased.

Obama’s vision also led to a feeling of less respect for President Karzai’s stature as a head of State.  President Obama’s early foreign policy doctrine was basically don’t do anything Bush did.  So the number of 1-on-1 discussions between the U.S. and Afghan presidents declined.  Instead America would increasingly communicate with Karzai via the Ambassador (who oddly enough was my old boss from 2002-03).  But that wasn’t the only change for Afghan government leaders.  They also now had to deal with more U.S. Deputy Ambassadors in Kabul.  I think at one point there were five.  Not to mention the increase in the number of General’s that came with the rise in troop numbers.

2003 09SEP 18 President Karzai MGE and I

(President Karzai, Maj. General Eikenberry, and 1LT Howk outside the President’s office in 2003, saying goodbye and posing in front of his new Afghan National Army recruiting poster)

To really make sure that Karzai felt their was too many cooks in the Kitchen America also created a super-ambassador for Afghanistan and Pakistan to look at the region as a whole.  The U.S. Special Ambassador for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) position was quickly replicated by most major countries involved in Afghanistan.  While this led to more great diplomatic conferences (that actually did get some major international policy straight) it also added a whole new set of actors in Kabul to distract the Afghan government from its job and confused the messages going to President Karzai from other countries.  The U.S. did try to ensure its SRAP position would not be very controversial by appointing the wilting violet Richard (the Bulldozer) Holbrooke as its first.  He was fun to watch though.

But it gets better.  In 2009 the Afghans prepared to hold their second presidential election.  During the Afghan election everybody and their brother had to come visit Kabul and in an attempt to appear to be neutral they met with all the candidates and not just the sitting president.  In most countries no one would visit any of the candidates but for some reason everyone felt they needed to do this in Afghanistan.  This action and others helped to convince an increasingly paranoid Karzai that the U.S. and others were trying to make him lose the election.  It got really ugly and the more than average amounts of corruption in the election didn’t help the situation.

In the end President Karzai was re-elected.  His 2009-2014 second term started on bad footing and relations got worse between Kabul and DC.  Luckily the ISAF (acronym for all military forces) commander General McChrystal (my boss in 2009) knew the value that Hamid Karzai placed on personal respect.  From the first meeting when he wore his dress uniform in lieu of his combat fatigues until the end of his tour McChrystal and Karzai were not just colleagues flung together in war but friends who trusted each other.  It helped that at his first meeting GEN McChrystal told Karzai he was there to serve him and listen to his advice on how to fight the war.  This helped Karzai for the first time to feel like he was at least in some kind of control of the military forces in his country.

Future military Generals between 2010-2014 were briefed on the importance of being a conduit for information between DC and Kabul and worked to secure a solid relationship with the President based on mutual respect for each others positions.

What can we learn from the tumultuous relationship between the United States and Afghanistan during the course of the war?

  • Personal Relationships Matter:  The more effort leaders of equal stature place on being respectful of each other the easier it is to work together.  Presidents must respect the position of the other presidents in the world even if they don’t personally like them.
  • Unity of Command is a real thing:  In the military or in any other profession it is important that everyone knows who the key leaders are and what their vision is.  When conditions are difficult having too many head chefs is a recipe for communications disaster.
  • Less can be More: The need for legislators, governors, cabinet secretaries, and other government officials to travel to a war zone may be valid in some cases.  What should be avoided is sending them in such large groups that it can shut down traffic in a foreign capital.  What must be avoided at all costs is thinking that every one of these visitors needs to have a meeting with the president of the country.  They could all have found an equivalent Afghan partner to talk to.  Lets the heads of state talk to each other, don’t bother them with the little stuff.
  • Trust is easily Lost and Secrets are No longer secret: At one point in the war the wikileaks debacle dumped out many private messages between the U.S. Ambassador and the Secretary of State.  Some were unflattering (even if simply honest) to many key leaders to include President Karzai.  Plan for all future messages to be leaked at some point.  It might change what you write.
  • Mango is best eaten with a spoon.

This piece started with a quote about a Mango.  Let me close with a couple of personal stories that might give some different insights into Hamid Karzai.  (you have read all the bad news)

One day at the Arg palace as we wrapped up a meeting with President Karzai we found a large group of Afghan elders in his large waiting room.  In typical Afghan fashion President Karzai insisted we stay and eat with them outside under a shade tree in the fresh Spring air.  We were seated near the head of a 40-person table and as we neared dessert President Karzai urged us to try a mango (making a joke about Pakistan).  He saw me puzzling at the fruit trying to figure out how to get at it.  He stopped me from peeling it and took a minute to demonstrate the best way to eat it without wearing it.  He pierced it in the middle and like an avocado spun the blade around the stone cutting the mango in half.  He then twisted the fruit and got a cup of mango in one hand and the other half with a stone in the other.  He grabbed the stone with his teeth and twisted again dropping the stone on his plate.  Then he grabbed a spoon and ate the mango from both halves.  Flawed as every man is, I also found Hamid Karzai to be sincere to those he trusted.

When we left Afghanistan in 2003 I asked my friends at the George C. Marshall Foundation to send us the 4-volume set of General Marshall’s biography so we could give it to him as a departure gift.  At a very small goodbye huddle General Eikenberry gave him the books and explained the valuable skills that George C. Marshall brought to the U.S. Government as a senior leader for over a decade in DC.  I gave him an inscribed copy of George Washington’s writings wishing him success as he tried to emulate Washington in turning a war torn country into a nation as the commander in chief.  He kindly gave me a small gift and one for my wife.  Hamid Karzai was thoughtful to those who were sincere.

2003 09SEP 18 MG E presents Marshall Books to Pres Karzai 2

(President Karzai and Maj. General Eikenberry discuss George C. Marshall in his private office)

Even if Karzai had all the combined attributes of Washington and Marshall (strategic thought, selfless leadership, patient mentor, unmatched integrity, respect of his followers etc) I doubt he could have done much better dealing with an outside world that almost unanimously and continuously told him how to simply “fix the problems” Afghanistan faced instead of helping him to solve them.  Advice and action should not be confused.






One thought on “President Karzai, Mangoes and Trust

  1. This is an article that should be included in every political science and international relations course in every university on the planet. There are a lot of great lessons in this excellent piece of writing.


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