You might think Hamid Karzai's biggest problem right now is his mouth.
The Afghan president has spent much time recently offering delusional criticism of the United States and its allies, charging that they are the ones responsible for the fraud that returned him to office for a second term. He came close to calling the U.S. and NATO troops "invaders." And last weekend, a few days after President Obama came by for a visit, Karzai told legislators if the United States continued trying to pressure him, he might just "join the Taliban."
If he did, Karzai would be doing his nation a great favor. He certainly could not wreak as much havoc as a Talib as he is causing now.
Karzai's screeds leave Washington with a dilemma. How to respond? But the larger problem is the Afghan people. Most of them just don't like Karzai, as he learned anew last weekend.
When heads of state are in trouble, they often head home for a rejuvenating visit among people who will rally around them, no matter what trouble they may face in the capital. President George W. Bush seldom heard a harsh word back in Texas. And Karzai certainly expected to be welcomed when he returned home to Kandahar for a meeting with about 1,500 tribal elders.
Instead, the residents shouted at him, fingers jabbing in the air, telling him they were angry about corruption, poor security and the lack of support from the government, the BBC reported.
With Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces, standing next to him, Karzai promised residents they could veto the planned military offensive intended to rid the city of the Taliban. McChrystal probably rolled his eyes, but he didn't say anything.
Karzai's home crowd was relatively nice to him -- compared to his audience in Marjah last month. An offensive there early this year wrested control of the city from the Taliban. But when Karzai visited Marjah, residents made it clear they despise him and his government.
Western forces fighting the Afghan war already face a thicket of dismaying dilemmas, so many it seems hard to imagine a time when this nine-year-old war can be brought to a successful conclusion. The enemy now is the Taliban, not al-Qaida, and across the country they are largely indistinguishable from ordinary citizens.
The Taliban leadership lives in another country, Pakistan, and Western forces are forbidden to cross the border. The almost-daily drone attacks seem to help, but they alone are not going to change the balance of power on the battlefield.
The Taliban's many friends in the Arab world send them money and military equipment. But they also reap hundreds of millions of dollars from Afghanistan's opium-poppy crop.
Even before Karzai began shooting off his mouth last week, several European countries were talking about pulling their troops out of Afghanistan. They are weary of the war. Karzai's latest remarks are hardening the resolve to leave.
Washington might see Karzai's pugnacious attitude as political theater intended to win support from the populace that did not vote for him and does not like him. If that's his strategy, it doesn't seem to be working, and that is a monumental new problem.
Suppose Western forces retake Kandahar city in the coming weeks, as they are planning to do.
From there, they mount offenses in other Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul provincial Taliban strongholds. What happens when the troops leave?
They install local governments and police forces, as they did in Marjah. Kabul chooses, or at least approves, these new officials. They are then Karzai government representatives.
Local tribal leaders may be chosen for these new positions. But the minute they accept, they are tainted. If Afghans, by and large, despise Karzai and have no respect for his government, why does anyone think local officers of that same government will engender anything but scorn?
Already some residents of Marjah are betraying the new government. Marines have been giving residents money as compensation for property damaged during the fighting. Some residents are handing their cash to Taliban fighters.
Add to the list of debilitating problems afflicting the Afghan war: Marjah, perhaps Kandahar, and other Potemkin villages that will likely fall to the Taliban just as soon as Western forces leave Afghanistan.
Contact Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, at firstname.lastname@example.org