Last week, Presidents Ashraf Ghani and Barack Obama stood side by side, and pledged that, this time, things would be different. Afghanistan and the United States have been locked in an awkward embrace for nearly 15 years, but now that clinch is supposed to get a lot less uncomfortable. With a bit more time, patience, and (of course) money, a harmonious relationship is close at hand.
The public had heard it all before: The same talking points could have been used during any visit by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai (and, quite possibly, some of them were). The earlier promises were often transparently false, and were recognized as such by observers at the time. Today, however, some of the naysayers have turned guardedly optimistic. I know, because I’m one of them.
After years of broken promises, there is reason to believe that these will be kept and that the pronouncements about a better U.S.–Afghan future deserve the benefit of the doubt.
KARZAI, I KNEW THEE WELL
Like most current or (as in my case) former U.S. officials who have handled Afghanistan issues since 2001, I have seen both Karzai and Ghani in action. Although both leaders entered office with similarly high expectations, the two men are not even remotely similar. Whatever mistakes Ghani might make (and every leader is bound to make some), they won’t be Karzai’s errors. That alone is cause for optimism.
As leader of the interim administration put in place following the Taliban’s ouster, and long after his 2004 election as president under Afghanistan’s new constitution, Karzai was commonly viewed as a valiant champion waging an under-resourced battle. With his reassuringly British-accented English and clad in his iconic cape and cap, he seemed like a real-life character whose movie version could only be played by Sean Connery. To many U.S. and Afghan observers, he was a lonely voice of unity and democratic values, bravely trying to keep his nation from being torn