President Obama Honors Warlord, Snubs Karzai

by Joshua Foust on 1/22/2009 · 5 comments

Gul Agha SherzaiGul Agha Sherzai (whose name is completely made up to make himself sound cool), is a man with a sketchy past: he was one of the main warlords controlling Kandahar in the early 90s who did such a great job running the city that the Taliban either murdered or chased out of town all the men he was associated with to uproarious cheers. Since then, he’s moved north and east, netting himself a province with a truly remarkable agricultural sector—Nangarhar is either one of the most poppy-ridden, or most poppy-free, of Afghanistan provinces, depending on the previous wheat harvest and the performance of Sherzai’s own poppy farms in Kandahar—and become Afghanistan’s Man of the Year. According to local accounts, Sherzai is either “better then those who don’t do nothin for the people n alwayz think for their pocket,” or making himself rich by organizing some of the bribe checkpoints truck drives going through the Khyber (when it’s open) must transit.

There are other stories: he’s either great for building roads and trying to fix the police, or he’s corrupt for being too “usy with musicians, dancing boys, handsome musician are all around him, parties, bribery, collecting money.” He’s a mixed bag, in other words. So guess who Barack Obama invited to his inauguration? Certainly not Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. No, according to Baktash Siawash he invited Sherzai.

Obama select four Afghan politicians to participate in his ceremony which Gula Agha Sherzai, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Dr. Ali Ahmad Jalali are the invited persons.

To build off Christian’s good rumination on Afghanistan’s forthcoming Presidential election, these men are likely to run in the election. Contrasted with Seth Jones’ rather shallow defense of US-backed puppets, these names might represent the new power elite in Afghanistan, at least as far as America is concerned. It might even be a good thing, since Karzai has not yet shown himself to be an effective enough leader to break the hold of corruption and narcotics on the country (his brother probably doesn’t help).

But my big question is: how are these other men any better? Sherzai has obvious shortcomings; Abdullah Abdullah is a Tajik and was a close advisor to Ahmed Shah Massou and this not too attractive to the Hazaras and many Pashtuns; Ashraf Ghani kinda sorta broke Afghanistan the last time he tried to assert a role in its affairs (as a participant in the Bonn process); Ahmad Jalali is a wonderful scholar (he cowrote The Other Side of the Mountain with Les Grau), but who knows what his leadership skills are, or how popular he is in Afghanistan itself as compared to the American classroom?

Indeed, and Christian said this in his post, it is a practical impossibility to find an Afghan without some kind of crazy problem that probably should preclude him from assuming office. Then again, American politicians have the same sorts of problems… just, they usually have fewer bodies in their wakes. Regardless, as Baktash notes, it is indeed remarkable that these men had the honor of attending Barack Obama’s inauguration, and not the current president (and supposed front-runner) Hamid Karzai. That in and of itself is a pretty remarkable statement of faith.

So, where does that part about strengthening the central government of Afghanistan come into play again?


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– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 5 comments }

Jawan Kohistani January 23, 2009 at 6:18 am

To solve Afghanistan one need to recognoise that it is NOT a nation state. Ever since its inception – by the agreements of the British and Russian empires to create a mutual no-mans land in between themselves – that would be the centre of the new empire created order around it – stamping out the previous history of the land. It is by default a faulty creation – which has been the bane of its people – all of them. For foriegners to come back and try to re-create the despotic entity of the Afghan state once again after it was rejected by its own population is a mistake.

The only solution is a new structure for that land – something very different from the Afghan state – an entity is needed that would create a sense of a civil society instead of celebrating tribalistic Afghanism (Pashtunism).

Florian Broschk January 23, 2009 at 7:13 am

You forgot to mention that Barack Obama and Gul Agha Shirzai are kinsmen – Gul Agha is a Barakzai; from the tribe (zai/zi = son/s of) of Bara(c)k, as obviously is the new US president…

All jokes beside; Karzais main problem is of course not, that the people do not perceive him as the favourite of the US; not being invited could even help him to shake his “Shah Shuja”-image. Openly distancing him from the West (but of course only in front of the curtains) might in the short term offer a good opportunity for Karzai to polish his reputation…

For the West, indeed the two problems remain: first, which candidate would likely fare any better than Karzai – and second, how could he have a fair chance in the elections? Karzai (seen as the forerunner of renewed Pashtun domination by many Non-Pashtuns, as an instrument of Panjsheri Tajiks by many Pashtuns and as a puppet of the US by certain parts of the whole population) at least was already president. Voting for someone who is already in power seems logical and much more sexy as giving your vote to some potential ‘loser’. I’m not to sure whether the West indeed has a coherent strategy for this part of the Afghanistan-game, but I guess that for now, some pressure on Karzai (we know you can’t but…) and the distant possibility to have some other guy (just in case) might be all behind the (not) invitations.

Joel Hafvenstein January 24, 2009 at 5:42 am

Ghani and Jalali did both serve with some distinction in Karzai’s first cabinet (Ghani successfully introduced a new and stable currency as finance minister; Jalali struggled honorably to improve the ANP and purge corrupt governors as interior minister), but have the “puppet of the West” problem. Abdullah is unlikely to win unless Pashtun areas are massively disenfrancished due to voter registration problems. Sherzai’s a thug whose reputation for effectiveness is greatly overstated (based primarily, as you say, on his record in controlling the poppy economy).

Most of the Afghans I speak to are unthrilled by the range of choices before them, but especially negative on the prospect of another Karzai term.

Joel Hafvenstein January 24, 2009 at 5:44 am

Incidentally, I don’t think Obama actually invited any Afghans but the ambassador to the inauguration… the rumor that he invited Sherzai is just a rumor.

Hussaaini January 24, 2009 at 3:01 pm

“Abdullah Abdullah is a Tajik and was a close advisor to Ahmed Shah Massou and this not too attractive to the Hazaras and many Pashtuns”

for your information, Abdullah is not a Tajik, he is from Kandahar and his Fahter is Pashtun, secondly what is the problm with being advisor to Ahmad Shah Massoud?! I think you are going to wrong pattern, and wrong and fals image of Afghanistan. there is no problem between tajiks and hazaras, its a matter of Past. be neutral in your analyses.

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