“I know how to handle Karzai.”

-Ambassador Holbrooke to Ambassador Eide 2009


Since 2002 I have been the proverbial “fly on the wall” for Afghan-related diplomatic and defense discussions in Kabul, DC, London, Abu Dhabi, Brussels, Tokyo, and elsewhere. I don’t offer any juicy details here about what I heard or saw, but I would like to explain some troubling trends that international community actors should be aware of when engaging. These thoughts apply specifically to Afghanistan, but could be considered more broadly for almost any country or relationship where two countries need to work together to form a common solution.

Much of this article comes from my observations of emissaries and visiting dignitaries who struggled in Kabul and beyond, and the negative effects they had on the Afghan government and people. Another source of these lessons is what I have learned listening to my Afghan colleagues and friends over the last 17 years. The examples chosen are not meant to disparage any particular person or nation, but I think they are useful to understand the problems that so many nations have created for themselves in Kabul by behavior that could have been avoided.

 “When you deliver bad news, it’s easier when you have a respectful relationship, and what we had in this case was very difficult news.”  -General Joseph Votel, as U.S. Central Command Commander

I believe emissaries from government and private sector will be more effective if they focus on the concepts of respect, being a good guest, listening, providing clarity, and understanding their role as an ambassador.

Respect Starts at the top

Showing respect for the nation you are visiting and for the leaders of that state seems like diplomacy 101, but I was amazed at the large number of people who acted disrespectfully towards the leaders of Afghanistan and by extension the Afghan people. This lack of respect can start at the top. Ambassadors are a direct link to the executive branch leader they represent, so we can’t overlook how a president interacts abroad. A clear example of presidential relations affecting the diplomatic relationship is the difference between Karzai and Bush and then Obama. While Bush tried to ensure Karzai felt like an equal, it seemed from the outset that Obama thought Bush was stooping down to a lesser level. The shift in respect between the two administrations towards Karzai was a key piece of the story to how the U.S. lost Karzai as a personal ally by 2011.

You aren’t that important

Imagine if the governor of Idaho, on a trip to Washington D.C. to speak at the potato exposition on the National Mall, called the president’s secretary and demanded a meeting. Or better yet, demanded a dinner with the president before he left town. That seems far fetched to you, but it’s the equivalent of some of the visits I watched in Kabul. Too many nations, governors, representatives, senators, under double-deputy secretaries etc. just had to have a meeting with the President of Afghanistan. It wasn’t just the elected and appointed civilians but also the military and other lesser diplomats that “needed” a state meeting. When a head of state is trying to run a country, you don’t need to interrupt him — unless you have a damn good reason.

you only think you’re special

After the United States created the Special Ambassador for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) the rest of the world followed suit.  This created another level of strain on the diplomatic system in Kabul. Many of the SRAPs also pushed the respect levels in Kabul down another notch. Not only was this a drain on President Karzai’s time, it also impinged on the ability of the ambassadors assigned to Kabul to sustain and grow their relationships with Karzai. While the need for regional diplomacy is critical, the breaking of diplomatic norms by many SRAPs was disrespectful in many directions.

Diplomats aren’t all at the State Department

A lesson in giving respect and using it to improve nation-to-nation relations can be seen in General McChrystal’s arrival to Kabul.  Before he left the United States, I mentioned to him and his staff that we needed to bring our dress military uniforms with us. This idea was met with laughter at first, but I explained how MG Eikenberry required us to have our dress uniforms on hand back in 2002 to ensure we could offer the proper respect when occasions required it. In June of 2009 General McChrystal showed up at the Arg Presidential Palace with his aide (me) and we were both in dress uniform. Immediately other U.S. dignitaries at the larger meeting asked us why we weren’t in combat fatigues. We simply responded that when you visit the U.S. president you wear your dress uniform, and Karzai was the president.

This small sign of respect, somehow lost on so many, was not lost on Karzai. He remarked in his one-on-one meeting that he was honored that the general was wearing his dress uniform.  McChrystal was able to reply, you are my commander-in-chief and this is your country, I work for you, now, too.

 a Good Guest doesn’t add to the stress

Respect clearly sets the stage for successful diplomacy, but never forgetting you are a guest, and recalling how a good guest acts is also critical. The lack of manners by emissaries took its toll on Karzai over time. There were enough stressors coming from his own people and Pakistan. It was not necessary for diplomats and visitors to add their own problems to his. When you are a guest, don’t bring your problems to your host. Help your host solve his problems.

Don’t push too hard

One of the easiest signs to spot after a diplomatic engagement was the frustration on the part of the Afghans that everyone coming to see them had a list of important issues that Afghans needed to solve immediately. While you may have urgent concerns as an emissary or guest, it’s best not to dump your problems on your host with a short suspense. A better approach would be to offer assistance and to support Afghan solutions, instead. Be a partner instead of demanding results. Demands are seldom a useful diplomatic tool.

Remember your position

One of the many complaints I hear from Afghans was that one U.S. ambassador started to act like a viceroy, not a diplomat, during his tour in Kabul. It’s important to remember that you are an emissary, not an Afghan policymaker or leader when you are assigned to Kabul. Afghans already have elected and appointed leaders for those tasks. This is one of many examples I witnessed or heard about guests losing their way during a visit or tour. Emissaries must work hard to keep Afghan leaders informed and involved if she performs activities that might be confused as a traditional task for the Afghan executive.

Everyone must be polite everywhere

It probably doesn’t need to be said that a U.S. Senator or Vice President blowing up in a meeting with the Afghan president and storming from the room is bad form. But maybe you don’t think about how drivers and protection details can damage relationships. Always drive polite in Kabul; there are plenty of dangers on the roads and no one will be angry if you are late due to traffic. The deaths and anger from local Afghans so many of us have witnessed in Afghanistan could have been avoided by some patience and a stern word from the senior passenger. Unless there is an immediate threat or risk, its best to drive safely, and often slowly. The same goes for security guards or bodyguards. They must learn to protect with respect. They are there to ensure the safety of installations and people, not to cause international incidents.

Listen and Don’t talk too much

The easiest way to learn how you can help Afghanistan is to listen.  Instead of reciting your demands, have meaningful conversations about the issues and help Afghans determine what you can do to help them. Use your senses in proportion to their abundance. I crafted an article for a diplomatic journal that covers this in detail; you can read it here: One mouth, two ears.

Try trust building techniques

The more trust you can build on a personal level by listening to Afghans and learning from them, the more likely you can weather the tough moments. One great example of trust building came for General McChrystal when he brought a possible strategy to Karzai for approval at his home. He wanted to ensure President Karzai saw the ISAF General as his commander and that Karzai was empowered in the role of commander in chief of military forces. Simple acts like this enabled McChrystal to have much more difficult conversations with Karzai over the year they served together.

Embassies and Ambassadors matter

Embassies should be small and active, not large and disruptive. The impact that the U.S. Embassy had from 2001-03 when it was small and full of motivated and talented people was very likely just as high as it was from 2009-11 when it became one of the largest embassies in the world.  Think about who you hire and how many people you really need…or the Afghans can absorb on a daily basis.

Never forget that ambassadors are like Kleenex: don’t think you are irreplaceable. Ambassadors and other diplomats should be replaced as needed; it’s business, not personal. This is a lesson perfectly framed by Ambassador Horan in Kaplan’s book The Arabists.

Despite being replaceable, White Houses shouldn’t purposely put an ambassador in an impossible situation. One case that comes to mind was when the SRAP program began in 2009. It seemed to those observing the U.S. Ambassador that the SRAP overshadowed him, and another ambassador was assigned to the embassy to undermine him by reminding the State employees that he was a temporary hire. While the military was surging in people, the civ-mil relations weren’t clear or completely positive. Meanwhile, President Obama was passing the ambassador very tough messages to relay to President Karzai. This all led to Karzai seeing the ambassador, an old friend, as turning-on him due to the non-stop stress, disrespect, and rumors that came at President Karzai from every direction. It was a perfect storm, and completely avoidable.

make your communication Clear

It is best to have only one or two voices in Kabul speaking for your nation, and they should be synchronized. Likely those two would be the ambassador and the senior military officer. All others passing through should remember they can work to help these two. Visitors should recall they are a guest. So, everyone coming into Kabul needs to coordinate their messages with the key leaders who will have to live with the messages after the guests have left.  There is a need for the U.S. government to stay on message. When they don’t, it opens the door for confusion and conspiracy theories to flourish.

Be clear about your nation’s aims and your nation’s expectation of Afghans. As the need arises, be clear about new topics that concern your nation. But, don’t change your messages constantly and present them as demands that must be met to remain friends. Constant ultimatums and threats do you no good.

Be a friend to the Afghan people, knowing full well friendships have ups and downs, but true friends can be counted on when the drama subsides.

I have surely not covered all the topics that could be included in an assessment of diplomacy in Afghanistan over the last couple decades. So, let this be the beginning of a long conversation. An examination of how other nations have acted in Afghanistan might be useful to improve their current and future activities in Kabul. While not your typical diplomat, learning from the Stan McChrystal-Hamid Karzai relationship might be a useful study.

I think the Afghan government and people would appreciate the rest of the world taking a moment to reflect before they act.

Related News

Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.