Remember when hardly a week went by without some article in the Western press referring to Hamid Karzai as the “mayor of Kabul”? It was one of those exasperating sound bites that thrived for years despite being much more pithy than accurate. Sure, the authority of the president’s office wasn’t sufficient to disarm warlords, purge corruption, or end disputes by fiat. But from quite early on, Karzai’s sweeping patronage powers affected every part of the country, thanks to the centralized constitution and his spotty but significant influence over Western aid money and troops. Karzai was capable of using those powers with remarkable boldness and tactical acumen – especially in summer 2004, when he kicked Fahim off the presidential ticket and dislodged Ismael Khan from Herat. From that point if not earlier, anyone who smirked about “the mayor of Kabul” simply wasn’t paying attention.
These days almost everyone agrees on Karzai’s relevance and patronage powers – as an insurmountable obstacle to the Afghan reconstruction. I have a degree of sympathy with Josh’s recent article where he argues that this new conventional wisdom is also an overstatement. The President is not a monster; sayke’s riposte goes too far in attributing the murder and fraud of Karzai’s circle to the man himself. And I agree with Josh that the “blame Karzai” meme crucially overlooks:
- the dysfunctional institutional framework the West accepted for Afghanistan, especially the over-centralized presidency and partyless democracy;
- the Western deployment of aid and military power in clumsy, destructive ways that have profoundly discredited the Afghan government;
- the West’s predilection for lavishing money, arms, and prestige on the very warlords and kingpins that we berate Karzai for empowering; and
- the bleak prospects that any Afghan President, with the best will and vision in the world, would face in governing so damaged a country.
All that said: when we set aside the question of how we got here and start looking for ways forward, I still can’t see how a Karzai-led government is consistent with a stable Afghanistan. Thanks to the constitution we wrote/acquiesced in, the Afghan presidency is an indispensable institution. We can’t start pretending that Karzai’s just a mayor and try to reform the government around him. He’s amply demonstrated his capacity to derail electoral, constitutional, and judicial reforms, as well as anti-corruption and counter-narcotics measures.
I don’t think Karzai has shot down these efforts because he’s a mafioso. He’s following a vision for stable government that relies on keeping himself at the helm and as many powerful people as possible on board. He won’t dispense with thugs like Dostum even when they give him every excuse to, because he knows he may find them politically necessary down the road. He reportedly believes that “his two greatest mistakes as president were the removals of Sher Muhammad Akhundzada and Marshal Fahim.” Karzai’s not going to allow a genuinely rule-of-law based system, because it would alienate the former commanders and nouveaux riches businessmen whom he sees as key to controlling Afghanistan.
For a long time, Karzai’s pragmatic, conciliatory, inclusive style of governance was cast as a strength. His tactics for winning and retaining support across the spectrum of the Afghan political elite have undeniably succeeded in building a kind of stability. Haseeb Humayoon’s coolly descriptive analysis of the 2009 election correctly highlights the breadth of Karzai’s support base — including not just the warlords, ethnocrats, and crooks of lore, but much of the technocratic, educated class beloved of foreign donors. The Karzai team is tactically smart, and it can probably keep on coopting or outmaneuvering rivals to sustain its grip on power.
One thing it plainly can’t do well is govern. Patrimonial systems rarely do much to help the people at the bottom of the pyramid, even with muscular leadership, and Karzai has been unwilling to get tough with even the most brazenly predatory and self-enriching figures in his coalition. He doesn’t hold his governors and cabinet members accountable for bad governance (unless he also suspects them of disloyalty). It would never be easy to create a government that gave Afghans security, justice, and jobs. Karzai’s unconditional big-tent governance strategy makes it all but impossible.
Meanwhile, he’s in a legitimacy contest with the insurgency – and the Taliban understand the nature of the fight they’re in. They don’t need to win a single pitched battle with the ANA (let alone NATO). They just need to keep out-governing the government, especially on the issues that are most important to ordinary Afghans. They have a vastly better track record at crime prevention and creating security than the ANP. The insurgent shadow courts are more credible than the corrupt government ones. The Taliban not only have a code of conduct – they have ombudsmen who receive and investigate public complaints about commanders who violate the code. They’ve got a sophisticated propaganda machine repeating that they’re the legitimate government of Afghanistan. And they’ve been very effective at killing off the Kabul government’s ground team (woleswals, pro-government maliks and mullahs).
All this out-governing may not have made the insurgents popular – the Taliban will almost inevitably be more feared than loved – but it’s consolidated the space within which they’re tolerated, and at times welcomed. Strategically, it’s at least as vital an asset as their Pakistan sanctuary.
So ignore all the gossip about whether or not he’s on drugs, legal or otherwise: the problem with Hamid Karzai is that his vision of stability and his strategy for achieving it are flawed. It’s simply not the basis for a government that can defeat the insurgency.
With respect to Mr. Novak and others who think they can talk Karzai into a different strategy, I reckon that the president and his inner circle have too much invested in the current approach. With respect to everyone who blames the constitution and belatedly calls for government to be devolved to the provinces and districts (hello, ASG): you’ll get a new, decentralized constitution over Karzai’s dead body. With respect to the righteous wrath of sayke, I don’t see how an American coup at this point gets us anything but an illegitimate puppet government even less capable of delivering stable governance.
So forget Switzerland. We are simply not going to see a stable, insurgency-free Afghanistan at the end of this tunnel. America will continue to subsidize Karzai and his motley coalition, in the hopes that like Najibullah, he’ll be able to hang on in Kabul even after the troops are gone. The Karzai government will never reach the “position of strength” from which we’d like to negotiate with the Taliban. Instead, I’m guessing we’ll try to freeze the conflict at a level of violence which, while high, will be tolerable to Western interests and minimize our loss of face. The losers will be the majority of Afghans, whose country will remain a wound for the foreseeable future, stuck with the system we’ve given them.