His Bootness has once again set his sights on the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan, and the only bright spot here is that he’s not advocating for the deployment of more US troops. He is, however, making the case that the US needs to keep its hand in the cookie jar from hell that is Afghan politics just long enough to ensure…something. I think it’s success, but as usual it’s hard to tell, what with all the flag waving and general “intervention will fix all the things!” Wrap that in thinly veiled assertions that Afghans are endemically helpless, and we have ourselves a classic Bootian op-ed.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ most famous connoisseur of contingency operation coffee is worried about how well the elections in 2014 will go, and he should be. But not for the reasons he sets out, and the solutions he proposes are less grounded in reality than Amanda Bynes. He begins by castigating the current president, one Hamid Karzai:
Today Karzai is perceived, at least in the West, as erratic and unpredictable, an opportunist who has troubling ties to corrupt officials and abusive warlords.
This sentence makes sense right up until the word “perceived,” since Afghans themselves also see the man the same way. And his being an opportunist is more than perception, since the US and other foreign backers gave him his current opportunity. As for his “troubling ties,” those “corrupt officials and abusive warlords” are the same people we allied ourselves with in 2001 and beyond. I do agree that his ties are troubling, but those ties are surprising to no one whose last name isn’t Boot, and they are ties the coalition has been more than happy to tolerate in the name of countering terror. In addition to Karzai’s associates, Boot also takes exception to Karzai’s policies, raising the specter of the “c” word in Afghanistan.
Far from consolidating democracy, Karzai has presided over the development of a deeply corrupt and abusive state that has allowed the resurgence of the Taliban.
An opposing viewpoint could be that the Taliban are resurgent because foreign intervention did a fine job of knocking the Taliban down, but a lousy job of knocking them out. And rather than ensuring that functional means of governance were in place through Afghanistan, the international community at large (and the US in particular) created a fertile ground for the Taliban’s resurgence. In the absence of even provisional pseudo-state structures, there was little or no rule of law, since that was a role the Taliban filled before their expulsion.
While corruption is rampant here, the Taliban simply stepped back into the void left by incomplete operations: coalition forces successfully executed 1/3 of a simplified COIN trifecta. US troops were generally adept at the “clear” portion of operations, but “hold” and “build” occurred years after initial clearance operations in many cases. This allowed the Taliban to re-emerge as key power brokers in the areas of this failed state where Kabul’s influence has never been felt. In addition to Karzai’s connections to corruption, Boot also worries that Hamid K. may not measure up when compared to some of history’s champions of democracy
He is no George Washington. He is not even a Ramon Magsaysay or an Alvaro Uribe. (Magsaysay was the Philippine leader in the 1950s who defeated the Huk rebellion; Uribe is the Colombian leader who in the last decade inflicted severe setbacks on the FARC insurgency.
Of course he’s no George Washington: Karzai’s got better teeth. Mandibular humor aside, I’d disagree that Karzai’s no Alvaro Uribe: Uribe’s tenure as president was marred by consistent allegations of human rights’ violations associated with Uribe’s administration. Even now, after he has left the presidency, investigations into Uribe’s connections to various paramilitary groups continue. So in that respect, Karzai and Uribe have a great deal in common, as the NDS have been regularly investigated due to allegations of torture. But it’s true that Karzai is going to be replaced in 2014: this term limit is provided in the Afghan constitution, and the challenge here is a free and fair election, which is what the world wants.
Very commendable, but is it realistic? The last election, in 2009, was marred by widespread fraud and ballot-stuffing orchestrated by Karzai and his allies. There is no reason to think that the 2014 election will be any different, considering that by then the U.S. military presence will be reduced from today’s level of 66,000 troops to just 34,000, and those troops will be acting as advisors, not polling station guards. Afghans will have to carry out the election largely on their own.
Subtly implied in that last statement is that anything the Afghans do on their own will be a failure more cataclysmic than the last season of Heroes. And this paragraph is less logical than the casting of Coy and Vance in the fifth season of The Dukes of Hazzard. The 2009 election was held during the halcyon hilarity US “surge” in Afghanistan, when there were more troops US troops on the ground than ever before. So if having US troops is the way to an unblemished election, what was happening in 2009? If an increased US presence then couldn’t prevent election fraud, what possible difference would more troops in 2014 make? What’s clear, then, is that something–an intangible, poorly defined something–must be done. Instead of neutrality, Boot suggests the following:
A better alternative would be to embrace a more politically activist role. The U.S. ambassador, CIA station chief and U.S. military commander in Kabul, acting in close concert with officials in Washington, should pick a favorite among the many candidates maneuvering to succeed Karzai — the best (or, more likely, least bad) leader for Afghanistan’s future. The U.S. could then use its influence, including those notorious bags of CIA cash, to do what it can to secure the election of whichever candidate is judged most likely to be a strong, unifying leader who will take on both the Taliban and corrupt government officials.
What’s missing here is a name. Any name. Any of the “many candidates” maneuvering to succeed Karzai. Daudzai. Atta. Koofi. Karzai. (Not Hamid…Qayyum, or Mahmud). Unfortunately, Boot offers no real solution here, only the battle cry that something must be done. We cannot simply sit by and let democracy unfold. That would just be un-American.
The problem in 2009 was not that the U.S. backed a competitor to Karzai, it was that the effort was diffident and ineffective. This time around we would have to do a better job. And we need not be deterred by the possibility that our machinations would be exposed — among most Afghans, American support is seen as a good thing. That’s why Karzai has not denied getting CIA cash.
Afghans do not see American support as a “good thing,” since American support is what put Karzai in power in the first place. It’s not just the West that sees the man as a corrupt puppet. What is a “good thing” is American money. Afghans do realize that foreign (mostly American) aid is still going to be essential to the future stability of the nation of Afghanistan, and as such, they’re more than happy to keep accepting bags of cash. Even if they’re not entirely happy with what that cash can buy.
Foreign intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular has done nothing but de-stabilize the region for several consecutive decades. The US support for the mujahideen successfully toppled the Russian-backed regime, but we did nothing to fill the governance void that resulted. That intervention occurred at a time when there was no democratic process in Afghanistan, and if the US was going to act as political “activist,” that was the time for it. If the US had helped establish non-radical systems of government at that time, the years of civil war might well have been avoided. Then again, post-2001, the US did not have a clear plan to establish coherent structures of governance in Afghanistan, and the Taliban exploited an opportunity to once again assume control of key areas of the country.
The US track record in Afghan politics is miserable. In light of that, what’s going to be best for Afghanistan is an election free from US machinations. Free from financial support for a hand-picked US candidates. Free from the actions that appear to be beneficial to the US, but ultimately result in another political debacle. Democracy in Afghanistan in 2014 promises to be a messy affair. But it’s still democracy. Afghan democracy. Maybe it’s time we let Afghans decide what they want for Afghanistan.
So Max apparently caught the article, and took exception to some of what I had to say. Probably the first time I’ve been told that using a Twitter handle and pen name showed a lack of bravery: