The Cable

Gates: U.S. Tried to Oust Karzai in 'Failed Putsch'

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long accused the Obama administration of trying to secretly engineer his political downfall. Turns out he may be right.

Lost in the political controversy surrounding former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' new memoir is a fascinating account of a failed administration attempt to ensure that Karzai was defeated in the 2009 Afghan elections. Gates is harshly critical of the move, which he derides as a "clumsy and failed putsch" that did significant damage to the U.S.-Afghan relationship. 

Karzai's clear distrust of President Obama, regardless of the cause, has contributed to the administration's inability to win Karzai's support for a security pact allowing for a long-term American troop presence in Afghanistan. With talks stalled, senior White House officials say they may withdraw all U.S. personnel from Afghanistan if a deal isn't reached soon.

The central players in the backchannel effort to unseat Karzai, according to Gates, were Richard Holbrooke, then the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl Eikenberry, then the U.S. ambassador to Kabul.

Gates writes that Holbrooke regularly spoke about the need to create "a level playing field" that would ensure all presidential candidates were given protective details, transportation to campaign events throughout the country, and the ability to convey their messages to independent Afghan newspapers, radio stations and TV outlets. In reality, Gates writes, Holbrooke didn't just want a level playing field. He wanted one tilted against Karzai.

"Holbrooke was doing his best to bring about the defeat of Karzai," Gates writes. "What he really wanted was to have enough credible candidates running to deny Karzai a majority in the election, thus forcing a runoff in which he could be defeated."

The two men, according to the former Defense chief, held highly publicized meetings with Karzai's opponents, attended their rallies, made a point of being photographed with them, and even offered them unspecified advice. Gates writes that Karzai quickly became aware of the U.S. efforts to unseat him and ultimately cut deals with the country's warlords to win their support in the vote.

The resulting election was dirty, even by Afghanistan's standards. It was marred by violence and large scale, barely hidden, vote-rigging. International monitors later concluded that nearly a quarter of the votes cast were fraudulent. The purported U.S. effort to unseat Karzai that Gates describes also failed: Karzai didn't win an outright majority, but he prevailed in the second round of voting.

"It was all ugly: our partner, the president of Afghanistan, was tainted, and our hands were dirty as well." he writes.

Gates' harsh account of his time in the Obama White House, particularly his ferocious criticism of Vice President Biden, has already prompted a fierce counterattack from current and former administration officials. White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden, who lived in Kabul as a senior advisor to Eikenberry during the 2009 elections, says Gates' accusations of a concerted effort to unseat Karzai were "just categorically false."

"The U.S.'s interest was in a stable Afghanistan, with credible democratic elections - not in helping any candidate win or lose," she said.

Stephen Biddle, an Afghanistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Gates' account bolsters Karzai's long-held belief that the U.S. government was trying to ensure he lost the election.

"This perception on his part was a major contributor to his growing disaffection with the U.S. ever since," Biddle said. "The result was the worst of both worlds - Karzai was re-elected, and we now looked like we'd attempted to get rid of him and failed. Not good."

Gates closes his description of the purported administration move to unseat Karzai with an account of a tense exchange with the special United Nations Representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide. The two men were seated next to each other during a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization devoted to the Afghan elections.

"Before speaking publicly, he whispered to me that while he was only going to say that there was blatant foreign interference in the election, he wanted me to know he had in mind specifically the United States and Holbrooke," Gates writes.

Mandel Ngan/ AFP/ Getty

The Cable

Pressure Mounts on Reid as 58 Senators Back Iran Sanctions

In a surprise development in Congress, a long-building effort to impose new sanctions on Iran has reached a near-filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Despite months of White House lobbying against the bill, 58 Senators now support the so-called "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act," according to a Senate aide close to the process.

The bill's bipartisan backing puts Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in an awful bind. Either he defies President Obama and allows a vote on the legislation. Or he goes along with the White House -- and takes on the majority of his fellow senators.

"The only way you can get a vote is if Reid allows it," said a separate Senate aide.  "Hence the question ... Does Reid support sanctions -- yes or no?"

A spokesman for Reid did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In December, the White House threatened to veto the legislation for fear that it would implode last November's interim nuclear deal in Geneva. At that time, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told Time magazine "the entire deal is dead" if Congress passses the legislation. Now Reid, who said last month he would eventually bring the issue to a vote, is confronted with demands by the White House to bury it. On the flipside, Democratic allies and pro-Israel lobbyists are hounding him to put the legislation to a vote.

"AIPAC thinks Reid is their ally, but he's carrying water for the administration," said a Senate aide, referring to the influential pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which supports the bill. "[It's] hard to keep playing both sides, but he'll keep doing it as long as he can."

If passed, the bill -- sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) -- would impose sanctions on Tehran if it fails to agree to a comprehensive nuclear deal either this year or next. Democrats supporting it include liberals such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Since its introduction last month, support for the bill has more than doubled from 26 cosponsors to 53 as of this week.

"Every day this week, the legislation has added additional cosponsors," said a Senate aide.

Close watchers of the bill disagree on what Reid will ultimately do. "Reid's in a tight spot," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of  the pro-sanctions Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "I think it's going to be hard for Reid to resist pressure and at least put it to a vote and see if there's sufficient support to override the veto."

Another Senate aide said Reid will likely stick with the White House. "I believe Reid sides with the administration and prevents any votes for 6-9 months," said the aide.

Late last year, Washington, Tehran and five other world powers sealed a six-month interim deal in Geneva. A main function of the legislation is to dictate the terms of a long-term, comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. The bill requires the dismantlement of all of Iran's uranium enrichment facilities. Some non-proliferation experts fear the terms are too strict, and could signal that Washington isn't negotiating in good faith. "While Iran may agree in the end to dismantle some of its nuclear infrastructure, there is no realistic chance that it will dismantle all of its uranium enrichment capability," said Edward Levine of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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