Choosing Our Targets

by Joel Hafvenstein on 9/15/2010 · 10 comments

The Obama administration is once again wrestling with the proper role of the fox in policing the henhouse.

Not that we should see President Karzai himself as the problem.  He’s just emblematic of an Afghan political elite whose tactics for staying in power are stubbornly inconsistent with Western efforts to build a stable, legitimate Afghan government.  (Or maybe I should say the Western vision — our actual efforts have rarely followed the blueprint).

After the 2009 election farce, Western governments made the reluctant decision to support the existing elite.  The highly risky alternative would have been trying to turn the clock back to 2002: convening a new transitional administration, loya jirga, and constitution (as suggested by some seasoned, disgruntled observers — and more recently by the ASG, as that’s what their governance recommendations would require).  Instead, we admitted that we need Karzai & Co even more than they need us.  It should hardly be surprising that any campaigns against corruption, narcotics trafficking, election fraud, or abuses of power now have to select targets at an appropriately low level:

“The corruption we need to combat is the corruption that undermines the fight against the Taliban,” said a second American official. “That means going after officials who abuse ordinary Afghans and drive them to the other side — a plundering landlord or a brutal, thieving cop.”

Unbelievable.  Anyone who has engaged with Afghanistan knows how much high-level corruption in Kabul undermines the fight against the Taliban.  Set aside for a moment the crucial loss of legitimacy — it has directly undermined the bank that pays the salaries of the soldiers and police.  Yes, the predatory brutality of many ANP is an important driver of support for the insurgency; but meaningful police reform has to start with the Ministry of Interior, not just the mascaraed gunmen strewn around the country.

By deciding to stick with our man in Kabul (and the broader Afghan elite he represents), the West has already conceded the battle against high-level corruption.  The current government of Afghanistan can not and will not muster itself to “out-govern” the insurgents.  Continuing to fund the Karzai administration is not a strategy for victory, just for freezing Afghanistan at a high but (for the West) tolerable level of instability.

It’s painful to watch the cognitive dissonance with our purported COIN mission play out in the White House.

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Joshua Novak September 15, 2010 at 9:37 am

Joel, the quandary you mention is true. This has been seen before with Diem in Vietnam, and Daud in Afghanistan.

If you are advocating a coup detat, I am sure it has been thought of. If things are so far gone that nothing can be done, it is time to negotiate and divide per ASG. In other words just surrender.

We are in fact at the point of very limited options. We can make a dramatic move and reinvent Karzai or we can accept the verdict of history and negotiate.

Obviously all has been discussed. President Fahim or Khalili will not work. Perhaps a “unity government” splitting some duties with Dr. Abdullah might be an option. But the choices are narrowed more and more as time goes by.

Looking at this Administration and how they have conducted themselves staring electoral defeat in eyes, and a foundering economy, I would not be surprised if the cut and run option is on the table. We cannot work well with the Afghans, the Afghan people are lost, and Pakistan holds all the cards once again.

This is not looking very positive at the moment. I would hold not hold my breath expecting some positive change. We are boxed in, so just enjoy the watching the destruction of another policy failure. We survived Vietnam, we may survive this.

Boris Sizemore September 16, 2010 at 9:48 am

Joel you are right about this..the stategy is failing..

We have several choices:

A. Reinvent Karzai-as is recommended in the Novak Paper
B. Coup d’etat
C. Negotiated Defeat as per ASG

Washington is going towards C. B is unlikely at this point. A. is the only possible option that has not been explored, but is preferable to C in the sense that this can turn from disaster to defeat. Renergizing the leadership is worth the effort.

Joel Hafvenstein September 16, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Hi Boris – I wouldn’t say that “reinventing Karzai” is a new strategy. There have been constant, mostly fruitless efforts by his US sponsors to reinvent Karzai into a more effective leader.

Briefly: I disagree with Joshua Novak’s portrayal of Karzai (and the former mujahidin commanders with whom Novak has a long-standing friendship) as someone who wants basically the same things the West wants, so that we just need better, humbler communication to smooth things out at the top. E. Rubin’s extraordinary portrayal of Karzai last year leads to different conclusions. Yes, he sincerely aspires to be his people’s Gandhi or Mandela, but thanks to his paranoia, flawed judgement, and refusal to dispense with even the worst abusers around him, he is not going to lead Afghanistan out of its current chaos.

The idea that we have leverage we can use to “reinvent” this man without destroying the whole system we put in place around him (i.e. constitution, elections) is hubris. Option A eventually collapses into Option B.

sayke September 16, 2010 at 12:32 pm

joel – you’re spot on. tolerating corruption as a strategy has been tried for the past 9 years, and it’s been catastrophic. i just submitted a post about this which will hopefully show up on the front page soonish.

boris – i’m not sure we want to see karzai reinvented – this version is bad enough. as far as i can see he will do absolutely anything to stay in power, and if he could cut a deal to be taliban frontman i think he would! unlike us, though, i don’t think they would tolerate his corruption, so that wouldn’t be an option – but if it was i bet he’d take it =/

Joshua Novak September 16, 2010 at 1:12 pm

First of all, Thanks Boris…you read the paper..finally…

Joel…just some comments….

Well you are right a broad portion of this..Many many Afghans do not like Karzai at all. It would take a complete make over to change the perception. And that includes many of my best friends who will not even be in the room with him. I have good friends who have threatened to close the Jalalabad Road because Karzai has pushed them too far and were very close with going toe to toe with Government and the Americans if need be. I have seen the fighters and been to the meetings out in the country. And yes, it is a long shot. But the philosophy behind it is, at least there is a chance. But this is really intra Afghan politics and is very complicated. A lot of the arguements are in fact honor related, and we Americans would never think like they do.

To say he has no support or that it is only among the Warlords he has supported is far from true. There has been a lot of progress in the country and to say he has no support is off base. He has more support than we give him credit for, and takes almost more criticism from the US Embassy than he takes from the Taliban. It is not even clear whos side the Embassy is on. There are Ministers who will walk out of the room if Eikenberry comes in. Clearly it is not a healthy situation.

I think Afghans are looking to see something dramatic from the leadership. You are sadly probably right in the sense it is a long shot. I knew that when I proposed it, and did discuss that with the anti Karzai Afghans I know, which is many of them. But some communication might change the situation. A new Ambassador or Petraeus who spends a lot of time with him must be making some difference. Karzai was badly insulted, not in American terms, but in Afghan terms and that has brought the change on. Holbrooke is basically persona non grata in Kabul. “Its so opaque”

It is actually hell to be President of Afghanistan, a country where consensus is everything and demands are many, on top of also catering to American agenda and an insurgent war. I still believe a middle ground with the Afghan leadership is preferable to no communication at all. I know for a fact he badly wants out of the Mayor of Kabul role, and was making tentative steps with McChrystal prior the June.

When you talk about those that surround him. Be specific. There are quite a few issues. Dostum? Wali? Mahmoud? Fahim? Shirzai?Jan Mohammed? Daudzei? The Gov. of Kapisa? Who? and Why? All Afghans are corrupt is just not true. We need to be able to say who and for what. If the big crime, Salehi was busted for is the bribe of a car, then well that is not up to much standard. Farnood and the Bank is another thing.

Who should he prosecute? We need to specific. And then let him do what he thinks he should.

They are all rotten, get rid of them all is one position, Diem or Daud Coupetat is another. I hold that things are not as messed up as the Sarah Chayes line portends. Go to Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Bangladesh and the same corruption stands, but without an obvious insurgent invasion from the neigboring country. Heck, China where I live is rife, but the economy is booming no one is complaining too loudly yet.

American policy demands that we treat Afghanistan and Pakistan equally. Afghans are looking at us to be proAfghan which to some extent means we recognize and do something about the bases in FATA etc. We push the line, “yes they are working on it,” but know that the IEDs that kill our soldiers and the training is coming from Pakistan. So in response we tiptoe around the tulips with the Pak military and ISI and send them more money every visit. Like someone said in another post, we are killing two birds with one stone.

This contradiction is driving everyone up the wall. There is a vast well spring of anti Taliban support in the country which we do not tap. I know for a fact there are thousands of Afghans who if there leaders felt comfortable would organize against the Taliban and the base areas. They have even asked me how to organize this kind of thing, thinking that they might have to do this in the future if the US did not sanction it now.

The paper just touches on all of these, but there is so much more on the Propaganda and energy level we could do, but just don’t.

ASG says it is just too complicated we cant figure it out, lets run away quickly. I say, its not that hard if you can actually sit down and take the time to get the consensus you need, Afghan style.

When you go to Kabul there is a Soviet Tank Graveyard, with thousand and thousands of BMPs, and T 62s. When they are united they can do incredible things. That is all we are missing. Hard but not impossible to achieve.

Joshua Novak September 16, 2010 at 6:06 pm

This is a brilliant paper written on the political calculations and real politik of last year’s elections and is a good picture of key power blocs that all Afghan leaders must contend with.

sayke September 16, 2010 at 10:07 pm

joshua – on one level that report is excellent, but it completely leaves out the organized and systematic ballot stuffing, vote buying, post-vote tally fraud, and even whole-cloth fabrication of polling centers that was perpetrated by karzai’s campaign. discussing the afghan elections without discussing these industrial-scale fraud operations is like discussing the afghan economy without discussing opium, or bribery. is just a start. there’s plenty more out there…

Joshua Novak September 17, 2010 at 12:14 am

Sayre.-Believe me I know, I just do not see it the same way you do….I was there. I was in Kandahar, Spin Boldak and Jalalabad…I could write a book about what happens and how. Not sure what is so surprising?

AAN has done a great job chronicling that, try doing that kind of reporting in Vietnam or China or many other places. Sure things can get better, but at least we can study them here.

These are standard Third World elections. They are actually better than Egypt’s (99% Mubarak) Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Sri Lanka, Myanamar, China, Russia (no real opposition) Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Guyana, North Korea, Morocco or regular Military Coups like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Uzbekistan? Kyrgystan? etc etc etc..That does not cover them all, but a lot of them. Wait till Pakistan has it next coup next week.

It’s like no one has ever been to other countries where this happens. Why the shock and such outrage? Not the first time this has ever happened. We wanted a democracy and it is not perfect.

Would you rather they have no elections? Or have the Emir decide? Sure it is nasty and unpleasant and inefficient, and not what we want or like. Thats how it has evolved, it is election number three in the history of Afghanistan(no they had one with Najibullah a referendum) They are establishing a new tradition and people are very interested. Maybe someday, after the war and all this ends will be better, but not now..

Maybe in a perfect world, where there was no insurgency, no money to be made by Westerners and Europeans who like Heroin, and in a place without a near 30 years of war after the Soviets entered and killed almost 1.5 million people it would be better. But its not. Why the shock? As the UN guys says every two days,,,”Afghanistan is not Switzerland.,”

We should have known what we were getting into when we attacked in 2001, this is the situation in this country. I am not surprised, not sure why so many people get all bundled up about normal things and situations in these countries. This is what Afghanistan is like today.

You should have seen the country in the 1980s and 1990s things were much worse, believe it or not. You should have seen those first refugee camps, people sleeping in the snow in blanket tents. or seen the ravages in the villages as they napalmed and destroyed by jets and helicopters. The road to Kabul was literally one crater after another.

This era to Afghans is actually relatively peaceful and nice, if you can believe it at all. These elections are a luxury and something to look forward to. More than they ever had before in their lifetimes. To them, it is a good thing, not bad. Try to put things into perspective like they do. We as Americans should count our blessings more than we do.

In the 1930s, there was the America First movement dedicated to the proposition that we should not get involved in the rest of the world. Even George Washington warned against foreign entanglements, we ignored them completely. So now we need to live in this imperfect world. Not what we like, but it is here.

We really should be used to it by now. If you can’t deal with the situation like it is, better to study a nice place like Switzerland that would be interesting I’m sure.

Lets see what happens and hope that there is not total violence. Not sure, tomorrow is coming very quickly now. It is a mess, that is true, but not a surprising mess.

Joshua Novak September 17, 2010 at 1:11 pm

This is where Steve Coll and I agree fully, and probably why he did not sign the ASG report. We have seen this happen before…the last time a power prepared to pull out. Great article…

Caleb Kavon September 19, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Another perspective on all this money elections corruption….patronage etc…

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