US plotted to ensure Hamid Karzai defeat in 2009 Afghan election, claims former defence chief Robert Gates

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 1:48am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 1:48am

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

Former US defence secretary Robert Gates' new memoir contains a fascinating account of a failed administration attempt to ensure 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 US-Afghan relationship.

Karzai's clear distrust of 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 US personnel from Afghanistan if a deal isn't reached soon.

The central players in the bid to unseat Karzai, according to Gates, were Richard Holbrooke, then the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl Eikenberry, then the US ambassador to Kabul.

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

According to Gates, the two men held highly publicised meetings with Karzai's opponents and attended their rallies.

Gates writes that Karzai became aware of the US efforts and cut deals with the country's warlords to win their support in the vote. The effort to unseat Karzai also failed - he didn't win an outright majority, but he prevailed in the second round of voting.

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden, who lived in Kabul as a senior adviser to Eikenberry during the 2009 elections, said Gates' claims were "categorically false". She said: "The US' interest was in a stable Afghanistan, with credible democratic elections, not in helping a candidate win or lose."

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

He 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."