In responding to Josh’s very articulate defense of Hamid Karzai in Foreign Policy, let us first review the criticisms of Karzai, as mentioned by his defenders: He has received treatment for manic depression (but doesn’t take his meds), treats Ahmadinejad better then Western leaders, blames “foreigners” for the fraud that won him the election, threatened to join the Taliban, and is generally foul-tempered, undiplomatic, and frequently downright irrational. These things are bad enough – collectively, given the incredibly important circumstances, they’re absolutely damning.
However, his defenders do not usually mention that Karzai manages and runs the opium trade, systematically steals elections (plural), fires (or failing that, assassinates) promising political competition, simultaneously extorts the international community and uses it as his enforcer, and generally acts like the wannabe dictator of the country. Taken together, “damning” doesn’t do them justice. This is our guy in Afghanistan? This is the best we can do? There aren’t any other options? Really…!?
Some of us do remember the nice happy days before Karzai realized he could corner the opium trade and get away with murder – when he seemed charming, back before his ability to BS the international community was widely recognized. I certainly remember those days. If ignorance is bliss, wipe the smile off my face. Surely even his defenders would acknowledge that, in a number of very important ways, we’ve been had for years. But what are we going to do about it?
Given that Karzai was not democratically elected due to massive fraud, let us at least stop pretending (at least with ourselves) that elections have bestowed any legitimacy on him whatsoever. Seth Jones’ support for Karzai reduces to: “The international community should support Karzai as the non-democratically non-elected president of Afghanistan, so stop undermining him, and help him show progress.” Perhaps we should indeed stop undermining him, and try to help him show progress. We’ve tried that for years now and it hasn’t worked, but regardless, let’s go into the stated reasons for why we should do that:
- Karzai is a Pashtun. Great. Given that only-a-Christian-can-be-president consociationalism works so great in Lebanon, why not sacrifice democracy in favor of a similar unspoken tradition that only a Pashtun can be president of Afghanistan…!? Oh wait, that’s been an absolute disaster in Lebanon – so much so that avoiding the emergence of similar institutionalized hackjobs should have been and still be at the top of our list of state-building priorities. But regardless, Hanif Atmar is a Pashtun too… Not like it should matter.
- Speaking of which, there are alternatives to Karzai, as we would have seen if we’d actually insist on counting the votes. Besides Abdullah Abdullah (who is fine and actually won the election), we have Hanif Atmar (the very competent and formidable former Minister of Education/Interior/etc before Karzai fired him for being too popular),Asraf Ghani (brilliant honest technocrat), Mohammad Mohaqeq (what, he can’t be president because he’s Hazara!? Do you want institutionalized racism, or competence!?), and Amrullah Saleh (former head of the NDS before Karzai also fired him for being too popular) – hell, let’s put Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar on there too… And these are just off the top of my head. But you know what? Let’s just count the votes. A tradition of democratic and peaceful transitions of power is worth a hell of a lot – certainly a hell of a lot more then whatever Karzai is giving us currently.
- Karzai may retain some multi-ethnic support, but how much of that support would be redirected to his successor – especially if his successor was minimally activist and competent? How much of Karzai’s current support is bought and paid for, and therefore unreliably shallow? And how much of that support is actually support for the larger project of a developing, freer, and more democratic Afghanistan? And anyway, how much of that still exists today?
- Replacing Karzai might be difficult. Waaaahhh OMG difficulty!! God forbid we be faced with… Difficulty!! Let us cower in fear of the Karzai defensive crouch!! But actually, no, it need not be difficult. All that’s necessary is to count the freakin’ votes. That’s all you need to justify it. Where we find fraud, let’s disqualify those who orchestrated it. From there, blow it open – let’s get our truth-and-reconciliation on. If Karzai complains, then he is welcome to show what would be his true colors, and follow through on his threat to join the Taliban. Shall we let our erstwhile ally extort us? Did we forget how to play hardball? Au contaire – this is a war. We should send him to whatever god he’d wish.
- Some say that replacing Karzai would weaken an already-weak state, but keeping him in does the same thing. We must build a state of strong laws, not just strong men. The state is weak because its incredibly centralized structure is built around a corrupt and rotting center of government, and the law is used by strongmen for their personal ends, pervasively and with impunity. You cannot build a strong state under those conditions. It is impossible. The Taliban, who know well what rule of law looks like, will eat it alive.
Those are apparently the reasons why we should support Karzai: He’s Pashtun (shouldn’t matter, but there are others), there aren’t alternatives (yes there are!), he has some support still (maybe? rule of law has more), replacing him would be difficult (duh this is a war), and actually counting the votes might weaken the state (so does leaving him in). There may be more trenchant reasons for continuing to support him, but those seem to be the most popular ones. We can discuss more in the comments. However, there are a number of other good points in Josh’s article that bear responding to:
Karzai is indeed making nice with his neighbors in anticipation of international withdrawal. So be it. This is peripheral to the anti-Karzai argument. That he uses his relationship with his neighbors to extort the hand that feeds him (by cozying up to Ahmadinejad when we started to get serious about anti-corruption, for example) goes far beyond merely laying the groundwork for international withdrawal, and is a more serious argument for alternatives to Karzai. It also illustrates the complete lack of coherent political strategy with which the US has approached Karzai since the end of Zalmay Khalilzad’s active management of Karzai in 2005.
The larger point that the institution of the presidency is a serious problem, though, bears consideration. It is absolutely and dangerously over-centralized, but let us not forget that Karzai wanted it this way. Hell, Bush probably wanted it this way – is this not the fabled theory of the unitary executive writ large? Karzai will not allow locally-accountable, effective, decentralized governance in Afghanistan, because it would undercut his all-pervasive structure of patronage and clientelism. Decentralized governance and reform of the presidency as an institution is absolutely necessary – but that’s just another argument in favor of replacing Karzai.
That Afghanistan is bankrupt, and Karzai doesn’t have a lot to work with, is another serious point. However, this is the case because effectively routing aid through Karzai’s government is extremely difficult where not impossible. With notable exceptions (Atmar! Saleh!), the government is generally an obstacle to effective aid delivery. Police salaries are low in part because so much gets skimmed off that not much is left – donors know their money wouldn’t get through. Absolutely, though, more aid should be channeled through the Afghan government when and where effective – and where not effective, heads should roll. Accountability must accompany authority. The Taliban get that, and they’re whupping the Karzai government as a result.
The notion that Karzai has been asked to do the impossible, unfortunately, seems like a cop-out. It genuinely looks like he has failed to create effective institutions because he doesn’t want to, and probably wouldn’t know how if he did. This contrasts with Najibulluh, who created and ran a remarkably competent, effective, and non-corrupt police force. The success of Najibulluh after the Soviet withdrawal (in the face of dozens of truckloads/day of military supplies thrown against him) shows that Karzai’s task is not impossible. Let us examine the reasons for Najibulluh’s success in light of Karzai’s failure, and draw what conclusions we may.
It’s true there’s pressure from some Afghans to negotiate an end to the fighting (even as the Taliban see no reason to negotiate if they can just conquer the entire country, again), but is poor little Karzai really only equipped with some meager political influence and money? Does he really not have the tools to do his job? Doesn’t he wield the entire military and moral force of the international community? Why does he not guide their use for maximum effectiveness against the Taliban? With all the resources at his disposal, why hasn’t he raised a large and effective army of his own (like Najibulluh did, and the Taliban are doing) to secure his country?
It’s also true that the very real interplay of Afghanistan constituencies will constrain any President of Afghanistan… But given the absolutely (dangerously) immense power that the Office of the President wields in the country, is there really so little he can do? We can’t have it both ways: Either the Office of the President is incredibly powerful and stuff is Karzai’s fault, or not. This isn’t just about giving Ismail Khan a ministry. That can be fine if by giving you get, and if there’s ever-increasing accountability and rules that prevent the clients from getting out of hand – all to buy time and help create institutions that are bigger and longer-lasting then then the guy on top of them. Unfortunately, we see Karzai essentially giving away license to loot particular fiefdoms, with no requirement for actual governance whatsoever. As a result, the entire system is broken.
This ties into Josh’s larger question: To what extent did the president create this broken system? Is he a cause of it, or an effect? I generally hold that institutions shape culture – culture is not fixed, and is much more a product of institutional incentives and pressures then vice versa. Karzai was given a blank institutional slate in 2001, and on it he drew the massively over-centralized and corrupt unitary executive we all decry. It is no wonder that pervasively corrupt political culture was the result.
However, Najibulluh’s reign, and the reign of the Taliban, both show that corruption is not necessary to maintain power in Afghanistan. Can we not conclude that Karzai chose and chooses to govern through corruption – and it is not necessary, and it hasn’t worked? I agree with Sarah Chayes as paraphrased by Andrew Exum: Corruption is *the* problem in Afghanistan. Afghanistan does not have a weak government. To the contrary, it has a quite effective government: It is “effective” at essentially lining the pockets of the ruling class at the expense of the people themselves.
This, along with Pakistan’s extensive high-level support for the Taliban, is a core driver of the international community’s failure in Afghanistan. Any successful strategy must reckon with this, and develop effective alternatives to rule-through-corruption. This necessitates an end to the Karzai era. Good riddance.
PS: I don’t mean to excuse other actors and factors in contributing to the problems currently facing Afghanistan. There are many, but let’s make sure this one gets the credit it deserves.
PPS: All due respect to Josh – you rock, and I can’t wait to follow up on this discussion. I find myself disagreeing with both you and Mr. Exum on this issue, which is an uncomfortable position, and makes me suspect that there are significant factors in play which I am not considering. I look forward to considering them. Cheers!