A memoir by former U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates that is harshly critical of President Barack Obama’s war leadership suggests that American attempts to influence the 2009 election in Afghanistan to ensure the defeat of President Hamid Karzai amounted to “a clumsy and failed putsch.”

The U.S. envoy to Afghanistan at the time, Richard Holbrooke, used his influence to support Karzai’s rivals in the election, Foreign Policy magazine reported about the book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, set to be published next week.

Holbrooke, who died in 2010, had publicly advocated a free and fair election, but Gates writes that the envoy "was doing his best to bring about the defeat of Karzai…. What he really 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."

The election was widely viewed as fraudulent, but when it did produce a run-off candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, he withdrew from the race, saying he lacked faith in the credibility of the process.

Gates is quoted writing: "It was all ugly: our partner, the president of Afghanistan, was tainted, and our hands were dirty as well."

Gates Book

The book entitled Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert Gates will be released next week. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

​Karzai noticed the efforts by the U.S. to support his rivals during the election, Gates’s memoir suggests.

Foreign Policy quotes Stephen Biddle, an Afghanistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, saying that "this perception on his part was a major contributor to his growing disaffection with the U.S. ever since."

"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," said Biddle.

The Afghan leader’s mistrust of the U.S. has been cited for his current reluctance to sign a security pact with the U.S. that would include the long-term presence of American troops.

White House spokesman Caitlin Hayden denied Gates's claims: "The U.S.'s interest was in a stable Afghanistan, with credible democratic elections — not in helping any candidate win or lose," she said.

Memoir scornful of VP Joe Biden

Gates served 4½ years as defence secretary, the last years of the George W. Bush administration and the first years of Obama's.

In recalling a meeting at the White House in March 2011, Gates writes: "As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."

In other published accounts of the book, which has been excerpted in the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal:

  • Vice-President Joe Biden is described as "a man of integrity" but also a political figure who has been "wrong on nearly  every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."
  • Gates recalls Obama and his secretary of state at the time, Hillary Rodham Clinton, discussing their opposition to Bush's 2007 surge of troops in Iraq. "Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary.... The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying."
  • Gates at times criticizes the Bush administration as well. He holds the Bush administration, in which he also served as defence secretary, responsible for what he considered misguided policy that squandered the early victories in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • In praise of Obama, Gates calls the president's decision to order navy commandos to raid a house in Pakistan believed to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden "one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House."

With files from The Associated Press