Michael O’Hanlon wants America to pick the next Afghan president:
The stakes are huge. If a warlord or corrupt politician wins the presidency, aid will be wasted and Afghanistan’s economy — still dependent on billions in annual foreign aid, such as that pledged during Sunday’s donor conference in Tokyo — will regress. Improvements in citizens’ quality of life, such as dramatic increases in life expectancy, school enrollment and cell phone availability, are likely to be squandered. Worse, insurgents will have a rallying cry likely to resonate with millions of disaffected Afghans. Civil war could resume and, with it, control over large parts of the country could be lost to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But if the next Afghan president can be an even moderately serious reformer, the most likely outcome will not be pretty but will be better than defeat.
This is a strange position to advocate: everything will fail if a corrupt politician wins the election, but everything might not fail a little less if a “moderately serious reformer” wins. In case you wanted to know what a “moderately serious reformer” looks like, O’Hanlon doesn’t actually describe the reforms that would be necessary. He does, however, name-check the same three English-speaking candidates Americans salivated over in 2009: Atmar, Abdullah, and “economic wizard Ashraf Ghani”.
None of those candidates drew broad appeal the last time around — not even Abdullah, who despite widespread support in the west still somehow wound up with hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes. The “wizard” Ashraf Ghani was widely hailed in western op-eds about the Afghan reformers who will save the day, but he finished in fourth place, losing even to a homeless man who campaigned from his car. That man, Ramzan Bashardost, actually won two provinces (Ghazni and Daikondi, where his Hazara heritage really helped)… but he doesn’t speak very much English so he doesn’t warrant a name-check from the Michael O’Hanlons of the world.
So beyond not understanding the field (O’Hanlon couldn’t bring himself to mention Ali Ahmed Jalali, Afghanistan’s former interior minister and current faculty at the National Defense University, who is also running), O’Hanlon doesn’t even bother to say what “reform” entails. That is its own discussion — Afghanistan’s government needs serious reform, and no one argues with that — but the appeal of minority candidates who don’t enjoy strong national appeal means using them to accomplish any reform is, to put it very gently, an uphill battle.
But there is a bigger problem with O’Hanlon’s article, and that is his apparent ease with the idea of “picking a winner.” O’Hanlon doesn’t seem to understand that “picking a winner” was the U.S. strategy in 2002. Picking a winner is why we’re stuck with corrupt, etc., Hamid Karzai. Karzai got the royal treatment in 2002: interviews on PBS, lauded at the State of the Union Address (“A lifelong Afghan nationalist”), the darling of every cocktail party and gathering around town for months.
From 2002-2004, everyone loved Karzai. They all thought this supposedly non-corrupt, non-warlord Pashtun leader would unite the country, keep corruption at bay, and lead Afghanistan into the future.
Of course that was nonsense. Karzai turned out to be just as venal, corrupt, and ineffective as every other leader of Afghanistan in recent decades because, as I explained for Foreign Policy two years ago, the institution of the presidency itself is broken. It is designed to not function normally:
The problem with focusing on Karzai so much is it places the entire onus for success or failure on Karzai, the person, when the bigger problem is the institution of the presidency. Afghanistan has one of the most centralized governments in the world. Karzai is responsible for managing the performance of 34 provincial governors, 400 or so district sub-governors, and all their associated chiefs of police, to say nothing of competing constituencies in Kabul. He personally appoints all government officials down to district administrators, of which there are hundreds. It’s no wonder he is having trouble governing…
Afghanistan does not have the benefit of strong institutions, so governance is based on relationships and patronage — trading favors, or appointments, for money. In the West, it is normally called corruption. In Afghanistan, though, corruption is, unfortunately, how the system works. Karzai could not have removed the warlord Ismail Khan from Herat in 2004, for instance, if he hadn’t offered Khan a ministerial position to compensate him for the loss of power and privilege. Nor could he have simply wished away Gul Agha Sherzai’s predatory rule of Kandahar without promising him power and money and influence elsewhere (in that case, the province of Nangarhar, where Sherzai is now governor). With only limited power to coerce his rivals, and moral suasion of limited value in a land ruled by ruthless, unsentimental men, corruption is just about the only tool an Afghan president has.
Anyway, Michael O’Hanlon thinks we can change that by meddling in Afghanistan’s politics and picking a new, supposedly more effective and less corrupt, “winner.” Another Magical Pet Afghan! Good times.
It’s funny, in 2002 when O’Hanlon was endorsing the war he called “masterful in both design and execution” and “one of the greater military successes of the twenty-ﬁrst century” for Foreign Affairs he didn’t have these same concerns about Karzai. In fact, O’Hanlon doesn’t even mention Karzai in his writing about Afghanistan until 2008, when he endorses working with him as a means of providing enough troops for the war. Throughout 2008, O’Hanlon’s public statements about the war focused narrowly on the troops — his concern about the need for a reformist president (for Karzai was obviously, horribly, counterproductively corrupt in 2008) certainly didn’t inspire him to write of the dire need for a reformer in Kabul.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 2009 election that O’Hanlon complained that corruption was “badly overlooked,” even though he was one of the media-ubiquitous “experts” who was overlooking it. But overlooking it is precisely the point.
O’Hanlon’s latest scheme for the country — he’s had several, from masterpiece to throwing troops at the war to making policemen to, now, somehow divining which magical pet Afghan we should pick to solve all of our woes — is the heart of the problem of the American misadventure in Afghanistan. Those with high visibility platforms suggest ideas or endorse policies without considering their recent, failed pasts (remember “arm the tribes?”). And they are given credibility for this because of… well, I don’t really know.
At the end of 2008, I was at a NATO conference on the future of Afghanistan. There, two DIA analysts insisted that the only way to maintain the good momentum we had in Afghanistan was to ensure that Hamid Karzai won the presidential election while also making sure it was free and fair so people accepted it. There were a lot of nodding heads with stars on their shoulders. The U.S. continues to think it can and should meddle in the politics of Afghanistan not because it is good at it, but because it has money and “interests” at play.
That’s absolute madness. If history tells us anything it is that the U.S. is especially bad at meddling in Afghan politics. We just don’t get it. We are bad at it. We have been bad at it. We have never been good at picking a winner — we do it so inconsistently, I’m astonished that in 2012 such an idea is still being pushed like it’s the result of considered research.
Investing all of our political eggs in a few slick “reformers” in Kabul is the worst thing the U.S. could possibly do. Some pro-western men in Kabul want American money for their presidential campaign? How surprising! The real problem driving corruption in Afghanistan is its broken institutions, not the personality of its president (remember: Kazai was widely believed in the west to not be corrupt in 2002-4). Focusing on the personalities of the candidates, as O’Hanlon does, ignores all the many challenges any of them would face in actually reforming the country — the other constituencies (including the Taliban), the extreme difficulty of actually reforming anything (Karzai tried to, for a while, before he gave up and went with a least-worst approach to running what he could), and the enormous political baggage we’d saddle any client with when our support inevitably becomes public.
The only thing O’Hanlon’s proposed policy will get us is the same crappy situation, only with more culpability for America mixed in. And probably, given his other writing on the subject, a plea for more troops and more time, etc.
Last thought. This is Michael O’Hanlon’s byline for the Washington Post op-ed: “Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy,” which he co-authored with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal.”
Here is Michael O’Hanlon’s short biography for the Brookings Institution: “Michael O’Hanlon specializes in national security and defense policy and is senior author of the Iraq and Afghanistan Index, projects. Before joining Brookings, O’Hanlon worked as a national security analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His current research agenda includes military strategy and technology, Northeast Asia, U.S. Central Command, and defense budgets, among other defense/security issues. O’Hanlon is a member of General David Petraeus’s External Advisory Board at the Central Intelligence Agency. His most recent books include The Wounded Giant (Penguin, 2012) and Bending History (Brookings, 2012).”
See that bit I highlighted? O’Hanlon does not routinely disclose his status as an advisor to the CIA when he writes op-eds advocating various policy ideas. That’s why I titled this post, “CIA Advisor Advocates Meddling in Afghanistan’s Election.”
Because that is precisely what is happening when O’Hanlon writes these articles. It is dishonest not to disclose his close professional and personal relationship with the Director of Central Intelligence, David Petraeus, and it is dishonest of the Washington Post not to disclose that relationship when it is publishing the opinion that the American government should interfere in another country’s politics and elections.
It is difficult to overstate just how screwed up that really is, so instead I’ll stop before the cursing begins and blood shoots out from my eyes.
Surreal Bonus: Michael O’Hanlon interviews U.S. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell in 2011 about training Afghan Army and Police forces. Lt. Gen. Caldwell is currently fending off allegations that he delayed a probe into abusive practices at an Afghan hospital because it might reflect poorly on President Obama.