KABUL – Don't call President Hamid Karzai a U.S. puppet. Far from it.
In recent months, the Afghan leader once adored in Washington has angered his U.S. backers with a string of decisions, from pardoning drug dealers to cozying up to warlords — straining relations at a time when the U.S. wants to accelerate its role in the Afghan war.
If Karzai is re-elected, the U.S. is going to have to find ways to deal with an Afghan leader who clearly has his own agenda — and both may be forced to sacrifice to see the alliance work.
Ahead of last Thursday's election, Karzai had good reason to distance himself from the United States — to assert independence and attract voters who have grown weary of the almost eight-year U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Though Karzai was practically ushered in to his first term by the Bush administration, U.S.-Afghan relations cooled significantly when President Barack Obama came to office in January. Seven months later, relations between Karzai and the Americans are strained.
A government order prohibited journalists from reporting on violence during voting hours on Thursday. Days before that, Karzai allowed an Uzbek warlord allegedly linked to the mass killing of Taliban prisoners in 2001 to return from exile in Turkey. Both moves prompted critical statements from U.S. officials.
And Karzai last month quietly signed off on a controversial law allowing Shiite Muslim husbands to refuse food and money to wives who deny them sex.
"U.S. government disappointment with President Karzai is well known," said Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 who now serves as the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
Neumann said the challenge for Washington is to find ways to influence Karzai without driving him into alliances with unsavory politicians who could stand in the way of urgently needed reforms.
"If Karzai wins, we need to work out a reasonable number of things that we really care about and try to get agreement on those while allowing him some space, if we don't want him to govern as 'an American puppet,'" Neumann said.
After Karzai's government banned media coverage of violence during the presidential election last Thursday — for fear such reports would suppress voter turnout — White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the U.S. had "expressed our concern and displeasure about this policy."
That followed an embassy statement saying the U.S. had made clear its "strong concerns" about a future rule in the Afghan government for Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose return was widely seen as a bid for votes for Karzai among the general's Uzbek followers.
Dostum is alleged to have been responsible for the deaths of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners early in the Afghan war. Obama has ordered his national security team to investigate allegations in the New York Times that the Bush administration failed to investigate the reported deaths.
James Dobbins, who served as President George W. Bush's first envoy to Afghanistan, said the U.S. government cooperated quite closely with Dostum in 2001 and that he was "quite instrumental" in the success of America's post Sept. 11 military campaign in Afghanistan, including the fall of Kabul. The U.S. assigned CIA and Special Operations Forces liaison teams and provided him with funding, Dobbins said.
"Dostum was controversial then, but also importantly helpful," Dobbins said. "He is controversial today, and less importantly helpful from a U.S. standpoint. But for Karzai he still brings important support from the large Uzbek minority."
Dostum's return was expected to net Karzai tens of thousands of Uzbek votes he might not have gotten otherwise. But bringing back Dostum has made U.S.-Afghan relations "scratchier," Dobbins said because the Obama administration is investigating the Taliban deaths.
"Karzai has sought to establish his distance from Washington, even as the Obama administration has sought to establish a less close identification with him," Dobbins said.
"Whoever wins, however, will need to cooperate closely with the U.S., just at the Obama administration will have to cooperate closely with winner," Dobbins said.
Karzai has long called the United States an important and valued ally, and he supported Obama's decision to send an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to the country this year to help combat the rising Taliban insurgency. A Karzai spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
A former Afghan interior minister, Taj Mohammad Wardak, a member of the Kabul provincial council, said he thought it was surprising that Karzai brought back Dostum, given the allegations of war crimes and how it had angered the U.S.
"America is very important for this country. Justice and rule of law is important. Karzai should pay attention to that. America is a supporter of democracy and stability for this country," Wardak said.
Karzai's decision last April to pardon five convicted members of an Afghan drug syndicate, including the nephew of a close political ally, enraged Western officials working to combat drug trafficking and was seen as a bid to draw votes.
Neumann holds out hope that if Karzai wins a second five-year term, he may be able to break away from some of the Afghan strongmen he courted in the past, since he would have less need for their support. He also added that Karzai is not always wrong about who he needs to work with and forces he needs to placate.
"In the end, he needs us and we need him, so we should focus on what is most essential to each and try to move forward together," Neumann said.