Time To Congratulate Hamid Karzai, And Let Him Do His Job
The other day the European Space Agency sent up a new satellite, dubbed SMOS (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity), whose “interferometric radiometer” is expected to provide all kinds of new information about how water cycles through the global environment.
The presidential election in Afghanistan, on the other hand, fizzled on the launch pad when Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from the second round of voting. This instantly made Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president and the man who had always been expected to win, into a victor-by-default.
At first there seemed to be a possibility that the second round would go ahead with only a single candidate, which would have been farcical under the circumstances: winter closing in, threats by the Taliban to disrupt the voting, and an Independent Election Commission whose independence from the Karzai campaign had been questioned by the good Dr Abdullah in any case. Fighting a battle against frost and militants to ensure the smooth running of a one-candidate election would hardly have been a sensible use of the all-too-limited resources available in Afghanistan, and one can hardly fault the Commission for deciding to simply dispense with the vote and declare a winner. So now we have President Karzai, once again, standing triumphant amid half-hearted congratulatory mutters from around the world. What on Earth is a well-meaning nation like Canada, due to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011 but deeply involved in the meantime, to do in the face of such shenanigans?
Well, we could start by giving Karzai a chance to actually govern. US President Barack Obama apparently lost no time in calling Karzai to congratulate him and, by the way, “urge him to get serious about improving the government, fighting corruption and speeding up the training of Afghan security forces”. The next day, in his first public remarks after winning the election, Karzai duly promised to tackle corruption and build an inclusive government, and the Taliban duly called him a puppet. A major and justifiable worry in the Western media has been that the flawed election will damage Karzai’s credibility, but it seems not to have occurred to the White House that one of the best ways to undermine the authority of a foreign leader is to transparently give him or her marching orders. If nothing else, I would have thought that recent events in Pakistan would have demonstrated to Obama and the gang that this high-handed, characteristically American style of dealing with purported allies goes down rather poorly in Karzai’s part of the world.
Canadians, then, should be prepared congratulate Karzai with a bit more sincerity. We should remember that he is the head of a sovereign nation, not the administrator of a colony, and we should be prepared to accept his decisions even when we don’t approve of them. If the fight against corruption seems to be advancing with suspicious slowness, we should think of those big cheques with Conservative Party logos, and remind ourselves that nobody’s perfect. We should be forthright with our opinions, but we should also respect the generally clear line between offering advice and issuing instructions. We should remember that no specific policy achievement – eradicating corruption, educating women, or even defeating the Taliban – will get us closer to meaningful “victory” in Afghanistan if it comes at the price of undercutting the government. Without strong, respected leadership in place, the country could easily fall apart after Western forces leave anyway.
We should also remember that Karzai, despite his much-discussed shortcomings, is probably the best man for the job in one critical respect – he has some ability to bridge the gap, as Selig Harrison explains brilliantly in the Globe and Mail, between Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes and the mostly-Tajik power-brokers of the former Northern Alliance. Karzai is himself a Pashtun of respectable lineage, but seems to be able to get along with leading Tajiks like Mohammed Fahim, not to mention the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Abdullah Abdullah is half-Tajik and half-Pashtun, but his power base is apparently among the Tajiks. Had he won the election, the Pashtuns would probably have ended up feeling even more angry and alienated than they do already, to the Taliban’s immense benefit. Karzai’s victory, unpalatable as it is to many in the West, is the best outcome Canada could have hoped for – unless the Pashtuns, who are notoriously averse to being pushed around by foreigners, decide that he really is a puppet and turn against him decisively. Canada can help avert that outcome by making it clear that we’re in the country to help the government of Afghanistan pursue its priorities, rather than to impose our own.