Just Get Rid of Karzai?

by Joshua Foust on 8/12/2010 · 6 comments

It can reasonably be called a meme now: Hamid Karzai is one of our biggest problems in Afghanistan. But what can we do about it? The usual answers seem to involve removing Hamid Karzai in some way—with all its myriad problems usually left unsaid—or outright cancelling the government.

Jeff Stein recently spoke to two people with tremendous experience in Afghanistan: Jack Devine and Oleg Kalugin. Devine ran the CIA’s Afghan Task Force in the 1980s, and Kalugin was a KGB General active in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Their advice is similar: ditch Karzai:

“Washington must quickly find alternatives to the corrupt politicians who have infested the U.S.-backed Karzai regime, perhaps fatally,” [Kalugin] told me.

“I would simply build up a strong opposition to Karzai, which would rely on values we all share, which would fight corruption, fight extremism, and, with massive American economic assistance, produce the desired results.”

He added, “There are opposition forces to Karzai. . . . those who are more liberal, more educated, more pro-Western and, let’s put it this way, more honest. Plenty of them,” he said, could be found here and elsewhere around the world.

Given what happened the last time we went combing the world for a replacement to Karzai and his clique, I’m curious where Kalugin thinks these mystical Afghans able to lead the country exist. “I would simply build up a strong opposition to Karzai?” I wish it were that simple.

Does Devine have any better ideas?

“We should figure out now which tribal leaders—and, under specially negotiated arrangements, which Taliban factions—we could establish productive relationships with,” he wrote Thursday.

“It’s a good bet that the CIA already has substantial relationships with many of these personalities, particularly in areas where agency operators have long enjoyed relative freedom of movement,” he continued. “Afghanistan is a tribal society … and tribal interests are often easy to accommodate with cash and other assets that help tribal leaders maintain their power.

If only we have decided to focus on tribal leaders, the war would be won! Sigh. Besides Afghanistan not really being a “tribal society,” (see here, or here, for example), there are a few issues here. For one, the CIA does have a substantial relationship with at least one major “tribal” personality: Ahmed Wali Karai (and indeed, one of the few things Ann Marlowe and I agree about is how incredibly toxic that relationship is). And we’ve tried paying off tribes to do our bidding… to either crickets or fireworks.

What I find worrying in this piece isn’t that two old-timers seem stuck in the 1980s—I can go to the Pentagon and hear much the same thing, if not in content then at least in intent—but rather that the rest of the U.S. government still is not, on the whole, adopting to Afghanistan as it is today. They seem to want it to be as they remember, in the 1980s, when it seemed easier (even if it actually wasn’t). Despite years of people shouting to the heavens, you still have influential former operators speaking untruths about the country; despite a decade to think of new ways of engaging the country, we’re still left with “let’s bribe some tribes,” as if that hasn’t been tried and failed ad nauseum.

This consistent lack of creativity—at least by higher level thinkers, if not the people down in the trenches actually experiencing the country on a daily basis—is, I think, one of the biggest reasons why the war in its current form is doomed to failure.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

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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AJK August 13, 2010 at 3:03 am

Wow, I can’t believe journalists are still calling Kalugin for advice. He seems like a nice enough guy – everyone’s folksy Russian grandpa with great stories about the Cold War – but he’s a much better historian than projector. For a go-to quote on anything vaguely Russia, he hasn’t said much insightful since the 90’s.

reader August 13, 2010 at 1:38 pm

The answer’s simple, Joshua, there is no solution.

There is no solution outside of some drastic moves the US and UN states are not willing or able to make. According to COIN theorists a much larger number of soldiers is needed, at a minimum, correct? And there is that pesky legitimate government. So if the US will never have enough soldiers there or an acceptable partner, what difference does more time make, beyond business opportunities for Afghan and Western crooks?

But there is the ANA, which recently proved their incompetence in the field (anan will have more on this, undoubtedly). Perhaps, in the face of facts, at sometime in the future the ANA and ANP provide enough competent manpower to provide security and destroy the insurgents. The problem then is the Afghan government can’t support them, but will the US pay them directly? No, even if the funds are American, they must be distributed by Afghan bureaucracies for political purposes, a state that doesn’t pay its soldiers isn’t legitimate in anyone’s eyes. But now we have the problem of graft, which are not being dealt with effectively. Will the US install observers with the ANA or ANP to make sure standards are being maintained and everybody is getting their salaries on time? Will the Afghans allow that? The US has proven that it isn’t good at reforming cultural/deep structural pathologies like this (think the Sons of Iraq ongoing farce, which anyone could have predicted and many did).

But facing reality, admitting defeat, and meaningful introspection runs counter to American national mythos, psychological and political necessities, therefore, parties/individuals within government and the talking classes will continue to hunt around for the next fix or for more time.

Most would agree that a genuinely honest politician might be popular with the majority, but for structural reasons he (and the remote chance of she) would be neutered or eaten alive. And while we are on the topic of popular desire for an honest politicians, demands for government patronage/foreign largess by communities- that so far don’t pay taxes- gives me a dim view of local initiatives and responsibility. It’s a case of what have you done for me lately? These spurious demands for cash are not to be conflated with the issue of 21st century weregild, the paltry sums Western governments pay out for booboos (even here the Germans were criticized for being too generous).

Finally, the neutering and destruction might not be done by Afghans, btw, there are many Westerners whose economic interests lie in a continuing corrupt Afghan state. This war is still about a massive wealth and attendant power (my main gripe with the war) transfer from one group of Westerners to another, a point not stressed enough. To fix Afghanistan, the US would have to do some internal house cleaning itself.

Jeffry Butter August 13, 2010 at 5:50 pm

I’d love to hear some details on “This war is still about a massive wealth and attendant power (my main gripe with the war) transfer from one group of Westerners to another” from reader. And some ways to inject some critical/innovative thinking into operations from Josh. S/F Butterman

reader August 13, 2010 at 7:32 pm


Straight to the point.

I should have stated that the war in Afghanistan is part of a larger war, currently including Afghanistan, cyber space, drugs, basically the world. It isn’t a conspiracy, more of a cyclical process (forgive my poor vocabulary, I can’t think of another word) and it resembles other government-based processes (think teacher, state workers’ unions), but more monies are being poured into this process, making it stronger.

Everything boils down to money/patronage is the lifeblood of politics/power. As cash is funneled to groups/individuals with an economic, emotional, institutional interest in seeing the war going, that cash fuels the politics that keeps the war going. Of course cash isn’t sufficient to keep it going, as I indicated previously, this war is about culture and psychology. But cash can pay for commercials, it can pay for rallies, it can amount to something as little as discretionary cash to run a private website or gas money to go to a political rally (Hit that paypal button on Michael Yon’s or blackfive’s website and all that good stuff) Like any large process, this transfer has a high level (big business) and a low leve (individuals, interests groups).

This war is characterized by a gathering of monies from tax-paying, productive parts of society by the government (think of Congress as a large clearing house) and then channeled to defense firms (many of whom are shifting from Cold War style industrialism to intelligence; this gives Gates et al cover when they talk about making cuts), locales (historically Sunbelt) dependent on military spending, the military itself and civilian contractors, who might be patriotic and altruistic, but are also economic rational players. At the same time there is a largish number of veterans with an emotional investment in whatever mission the US is currently undertaking, call me a cynic, but pro-government policy veterans groups are bound to get more attention/free publicity from Uncle Sam than anti-war groups. Of course there are ethnic diasporas with increasing numbers of voters, “helpful” members of which communities are more likely to get cash from Uncle Sam and thus have more discretionary spending to further their political aims.

I might have been picking on the Government and military, but something similar happens with ngos. Correct me if I am wrong, Jeff, but isn’t the constant critique that the majority of monies meant for Afghanistan development projects are funneled back to Western countries?

reader August 13, 2010 at 8:02 pm

realized with that last bit, I conflated two ideas:

1) economic interest in an ongoing corrupt Afghanistan

2) wealth transfer

They are related, but separate.

Prithvi August 14, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Is a decentralized stable Afghanistan a possibility? Perhaps in the that way the corruption of the central government could do the least damage?

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