Afghan President Hamid Karzai has come under considerable criticism in the U.S. for his emotional outbursts and cantankerousness. Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell mocked Karzai recently for crying over the prospect that his son, Mirwais, might leave the country to live a better life. Bob Woodward’s newest book alleges that Karzai has received treatment for manic depression and smokes marijuana -- leading commentators to speculate that the Afghan president has lost the ability to lead. However, Hamid Karzai remains the only real option for crafting a political and institutional framework that will stabilize the country, and the sooner the U.S. realizes it, and stops wishing for a perfect leader to fix an imperfect war, the better off we’ll be.
There’s no doubt President Karzai has behaved erratically over the past year. First, there was his uncomfortably warm welcome to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when the Iranian leader arrived in Kabul on March 10. Then came Karzai’s fiery anti-American speech on April 3, in which he blamed “foreigners” for the country’s election irregularities and reportedly even threatened to join the Taliban.
Karzai’s government was widely seen as corrupt and incompetent long before the 2009 presidential elections. The most damning indictment came from the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, who wrote in a secret memo that “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner” and urged the United States to cut its losses. According to Woodward, Eikenberry at one point also said Karzai was “off his meds, he’s off his meds.” Eikenberry lost the argument inside the administration, and President Obama instead chose to send 30,000 additional troops to escalate the war. Ambassador Eikenberry probably pulled his punches: the Afghan president appears foul-tempered, undiplomatic, and downright irrational. Conventional wisdom is hardening around the notion that Karzai is the problem, and the U.S.-led coalition must work around him if it has any hope of succeeding in Afghanistan.
Remember when Karzai was “our man in Kabul,” rather than an obstacle? Here was a rock-solid anti-Taliban leader who could charm both Pashtun warlords and international donors with equal grace. And the West needed him. As RAND analyst Seth Jones argued in July 2008, during the last period of heavy dump-Karzai chatter, “The United States and other NATO countries should stop undermining Karzai now, shore up support for him as the democratically elected president of Afghanistan, and help him show progress.” Calling Karzai “democratically elected” is a bit of a stretch, given the rampant fraud that accompanies elections in Afghanistan. But he is in charge, unless the U.S. is to contemplate the messy prospect of cancelling his government and starting over -- something no one really wants to deal with.
The problem with focusing on Karzai so much is it places the entire onus for success or failure on Karzai, the person, when the bigger problem is the institution of the presidency. Afghanistan has one of the most centralized governments in the world. Karzai is responsible for managing the performance of 34 provincial governors, 400 or so district sub-governors, and all their associated chiefs of police, to say nothing of competing constituencies in Kabul. He personally appoints all government officials down to district administrators, of which there are hundreds. It’s no wonder he is having trouble governing.
Afghanistan is also one of the world’s most bankrupt countries, though that is slowly changing. Karzai’s critics have ripped him for failing to provide security, maintain a functional government, and reconstruct the country. He certainly has done none of those things. But he also has none of the resources he would need to act. The budget for the Afghan National Army and Police will exceed the country's meager GDP within just a few years at its current rate of growth. Government employees are paid less than Taliban foot soldiers.
For all his many flaws, none of this is of Karzai’s making. He’s in an impossible situation, boxed in by a constitution designed by the West and an economy and society devastated by years of war. Anyone else trying to govern Afghanistan is going to face the same constraints. Instead of blaming Karzai, the U.S. should look at the structural and institutional reasons for his failed presidency.
In a similar vein, Karzai's threat to join the Taliban earlier this year was probably more about letting off steam than about any real plans he’s contemplating. But the weird credulity afforded to his comments by the press is part of a larger pattern that has the Afghan president understandably frustrated and angry. Karzai has been asked to do the impossible and has been relentlessly derided when he couldn't deliver. In Washington, the media asks almost daily if he is a reliable partner. Pundits wonder openly if he has gone crazy, as if you can just tar the man as damaged and discard him, starting over with some magic Afghan who can fix all of our problems.
Karzai is not crazy, and his actions are really not so mysterious. His decision to push Afghanistan-Iran relations has been painted as "retaliation" for President Obama canceling a trip to Kabul several months ago. And it very well could be, especially given the buddy-buddy tone of President Ahmadinejad's visit in March. Yet, at the same time, Karzai is doing what any head of state in Afghanistan would do: making nice with his neighbors. Karzai's sweetheart deal with China over the Aynak mine, for example, where China offered over $1 billion more than any western bid for access to a huge deposit of copper, fits that pattern to a T. It’s nothing sinister: given Obama's 2011 cutoff date for keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Karzai knows he has to plan for the day when the Western troops go home and his government is left to fend off the Taliban alone. China throwing millions of dollars a year in taxes and fees to Kabul is one of the few reliable ways Karzai has of raising revenue to fund his government.
Karzai also has very real constituencies at home to which he must appeal. He’s representing a population that is growing increasingly disillusioned with Western promises and actions. The Taliban is making steady progress in affecting vast swaths of territory. There is incredible pressure in Kabul to negotiate some sort of end to the fighting -- and not necessarily on terms the U.S. wants to see. Karzai only has two real bargaining chips: political influence, and money. When the United States installed him in Kabul in 2002, no one considered Hamid Karzai a particularly corrupt individual -- certainly not by Afghan standards. But to fulfill the duties of his office, Karzai had no choice but to trade money and money-making positions to get even minimal results.
Afghanistan does not have the benefit of strong institutions, so governance is based on relationships and patronage -- trading favors, or appointments, for money. In the West, it is normally called corruption. In Afghanistan, though, corruption is, unfortunately, how the system works. Karzai could not have removed the warlord Ismail Khan from Herat in 2004, for instance, if he hadn't offered Khan a ministerial position to compensate him for the loss of power and privilege. Nor could he have simply wished away Gul Agha Sherzai's predatory rule of Kandahar without promising him power and money and influence elsewhere (in that case, the province of Nangarhar, where Sherzai is now governor). With only limited power to coerce his rivals, and moral suasion of limited value in a land ruled by ruthless, unsentimental men, corruption is just about the only tool an Afghan president has.
Western governments have nonetheless hammered Karzai on corruption and ineffectiveness, threatening to withhold aid unless he acts swiftly and decisively to clean up his act. The international community wants to de-personalize Afghan power politics, replacing the current system of patronage with something more formal and institutionalized. Yet to focus only on corruption is to address symptoms rather than causes: if the president can only govern through corruption, then the system, not the president, is the problem.
There is a growing chorus within the U.S. policy community to address these systemic failings by scrapping the entire Afghan government and starting over. It’s easy to see why this approach has some appeal. Karzai’s government is maddeningly frustrating to deal with, and there’s no doubt lots of money has been wasted. But the coalition has billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and countless reputations staked on the success of this current government. Besides, if the United States and its allies couldn’t get it right in 2002, when violence was low and domestic support high, why would they do any better a job now, with violence worse than ever and domestic support waning fast?
Starting from scratch would most certainly be harder than muddling through with the current arrangement. Military strategists suggest building "bottom-up" institutions at the district level to help get the war back on track. Starting from scratch invalidates the very strategy President Obama has repeatedly articulated as his goal for the war: developing a stable central government that can defend itself. However, recent attempts to empower local communities, such as the Shinwari in Nangarhar, have resulted in violent “blowback,” as competing local groups and the central government have protested at the dissolution of communities into violent contention over Coalition money.
It’s not hard to imagine ousting Karzai; it’s much harder to conceive of anyone better at the moment. Gul Agha Sherzai, the current governor of Nangarhar and former governor of Kandahar; Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek militia commander from the North; and Ismail Khan, the former potentate of Herat, all command constituencies, though none with the same degree of multi-ethnic support as Karzai. Abdullah Abdullah, who contested the election last year, also has many supporters, though again, not as many as Karzai.
But even if one of these men were to unseat the Afghan president, there’s no guarantee that they would be any better. In fact, they could be worse. Imagine if Ismail Khan were president – could he exercise any real control outside of Herat? Similarly, Gul Agha Sherzai, the prominent government of Nangarhar, was hyped last year as a presidential contender… but if Karzai’s relationship to the narcotics industry is a problem, Sherzai is worse (he’s also much more violent, and allegedly has a large harem of “dancing boys” at his mansion -- surely not the man the U.S. would want in Kabul). Additionally, Sherzai’s tenure of Kandahar was so bad the Taliban were welcomed in 1994 as liberators from his violent, capricious style of rule. Western pundits also fawned over Dostum and Ashraf Ghani -- but neither has been able to secure more than scattered, occasional support from Afghan voters. Each one of these men face a critical shortcoming: they represent their communities, but not Afghanistan. Only Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah enjoyed broad support in the last election.
Complaints about Karzai are focused too much on the man and not enough on the presidency. Good man or no, having an office as poorly situated as the Afghan presidency makes any officeholder destined for failure. Were another president to step into the post, he would be faced by the same pressures -- forced to manage the same perilous balancing acts. So maybe it’s less a question about Karzai than about U.S. expectations. If those can’t be met, Washington has a much bigger problem on its hands.
Joshua Foust is a contributor to PBS Need to Know and a contributing editor at Current Intelligence. He blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at http://registan.net. His first book, Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net, is available this fall.
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