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Time To Congratulate Hamid Karzai, And Let Him Do His Job

November 3, 2009

Photo courtesy Flickr user "ChuckHolton."

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. reneethewriter permalink
    November 7, 2009 6:01 pm

    From the Guardian’s editorial on Afghanistan (as Groundhog day) Nov.07/09

    “Flanked by two vice-presidents, including a notorious warlord that Mr Karzai accepted as a running mate, Mr Karzai vowed yesterday to tackle corruption. This was rather like a cat promising abstinence on the subject of mice. The election has been more than just messy – Barack Obama’s word. It has been oxymoronic. A process run by the UN has made a nonsense of the very standard the UN exists to uphold.”

  2. November 6, 2009 5:54 pm

    Do I have it right that the Afghan “IEC” is not Grant Kippen’s UN appointed organization, but one to which Karzai sent all his hand-picked supporters – they are patronage appointments similar to the ones our Tory and Lib governments have made to the equivalent bodies here in Canada, since, oh I dunno, confederation? Which in a way perhaps validates your line of reasoning that Karzai and co are just following the steps of the kind of “democracy” that we the “West” have imposed/suggested/encouraged for “them’s over there.”?

    The need to get “down” to the tribal levels interests me although I ‘m not quite clear what the facts are to suggest that Karzai is “the guy” as opposed to others to “bridge the gap” – didn’t “our side” when we were fighting the communists, liquidate or help to “get rid” of all kinds of indigenous leaders and what’s now left are strongmen/warlords/businessmen from all the different tribes? Isn’t is a kind of civil war, such as Adam Rothstein’s book, King Leopolod Ghosts describes in the African continent: imperialism, centuries of it, then neo-colonialism, then global strategic positioning, then siding with one group over another, then sometimes, partition, then civil war, then a mess we leave?

    er, not to parse the text too much (where is that Parsing Tiara gone, anyway)
    but if we take this statement at to its logical conclusion –
    “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. ” –

    then shouldn’t that rationale lead us to a complete withdrawal.
    1. President Karzai is legit. (sort of)
    2.He is the head of a “sovereign” “nation” (I will resist deconstructing these two words. I rather like the word, “sovereign.” Heh.)
    3. Not the administer of a colony. Really? Guess that means that he can defend his own country then eh? And we can leave?

    Don’t the facts show that Karzai came to prominence, secured a spot at the Bonn conference, was put forth as the leading candidate the first go round, and ever since has been propped up, supported, cajoled, encouraged, criticized, given the cover of US/NATO troops, subjected to backroom exhortations, and generally would be nowhere without being a hand-maiden of the US, since it decided to back the muhajadeen against the Soviets?

    Our friends at the NYT, despite the drum roll of their war support (it’s Iraq all over again and again) in addition to running the D. Filikins piece on CIA bankrolling of Karzai’s brother, also today has a must read on heretofore unrevealed information on what Ann Jones has been reporting for months:
    that both the Afghan Police force, the ISAF Afghan component, and Afghan security forces, are underfed, undertrained, infiltrated, mixed-up and as you’ve correctly pointed out, a hotbed of tribal conflicts.

    How does supporting Karzai help with all this? Although if were to be a fact on the ground “over there,”I would support this statement, to a certain degree,
    “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.”

    Aren’t all peoples everywhere, including ourselves (hmmm vis a vis the US, not sure) “adverse to being pushed around” – it’s not just the Pashtuns?

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 8, 2009 12:53 pm

      Wow, that’s some serious parsing, even if you’ve misplaced your tiara. A few thoughts…

      Yes, the IEC is different from the ECC, which is UN-backed. The IEC is an Afghan organisation, and is undoubtedly in Karzai’s pocket at least to some extent. I’m not suggesting that the IEC itself is the fount of all legitimacy, but it concluded the electoral process by declaring Karzai to be the winner of what is, after all, the only game in town. The best reasons to accept that result are that (1) Karzai probably isn’t a bad choice, or at least quite possibly better than Abdullah Abdullah in practical terms, and (2) there’s no alternative that isn’t fraught with enormous problems.

      Regarding gap-bridging and the tribal level, there are two different things going on here. By ethnicity (a broader category than tribe) Karzai is a Pashtun, which is good because the Pashtuns have never really accepted being governed by non-Pashtuns in recent memory. The first king of Afghanistan (Ahmed Shah Durrani, in the 18th century) was a Pashtun, and most if not all of Afghanistan’s subsequent leaders have also been Pashtuns. Tribally speaking, Karzai is from the Popalzai sub-tribe of the Durrani tribe. I don’t know exactly how this affects his relations with other Pashtuns – it probably makes some into natural opponents, and others into natural enemies or rivals. Ahmed Shah Durrani was also a Popalzai, so I assume it can’t be too bad.

      I haven’t seen much discussion anywhere of exactly how coherent Pashtun tribes are these days, or how much power traditional leaders still wield. This is something the media should probably be paying a lot more attention to. However, it’s interesting that reports like this one describe the area where the Pakistani army is currently fighting as “controlled by the Mehsud tribe”, which suggests that tribes retain a fair bit of influence in at least some parts of Pashtunland. I suspect that many tribes have been participating in Afghanistan’s wars without necessarily being destroyed or even badly weakened by them.

      Karzai is certainly dependent on Western military support, but then, Canada’s security is dependent to some extent on American military power. This state of things undoubtedly compromises our sovereignty, but doesn’t undermine it completely. After all, allies help each other out, which in some cases involves providing military support. So if we treat Karzai like an ally receiving military support, rather than like a colonial administrator ultimately subordinate to our wishes, we can help defend his government without (if we’re lucky) fatally compromising its authority in the eyes of other influential Afghans. And yes, this logic does lead towards withdrawal at some point, since no ally should need military support forever… but isn’t eventual withdrawal part of the game plan anyway?

      People from every culture are averse to being pushed around, as you point out, but I really do think the degree of aversion varies from one culture to another. It’s an interesting fact that two of China’s dynasties, the Yuan and the Qing, were actually dynasties of foreigners (the Mongols and the Manchus, respectively). There was resistance from the Han Chinese in both cases, but by and large the Chinese dealt with being conquered by cooperating with and ultimately assimilating their new masters, rather than by continuing to fight with them. The Pashtuns behaved rather differently towards both the British and the Russians, to say nothing of Alexander the Great.

      • November 9, 2009 11:04 am

        Cor, thank you for taking the time to respond with patience and in detail and for not chiding me about all my ridiculous typos and spelling errors – sorry for those; of course, like many of us, I plead too fast fingers during the inevitable multi-tasking; this caught my eye today, from the AfPak channel: a citation of Alex Rodriguez re the same topic as the Guardian link you’ve referenced:Taliban in Waziristan and the Mehsud tribesmen,0,4078369,print.story

        Looks like you are onto something re the focus now on micro-tribal relations not just in A/Stan but in bordering regions.

        One additional thought: interesting how when the spotlight of the world’s media turns its restless eye on whatever is “deemed hot” – and that usually follows in the wake of whatever the United States is doing, particularly military-wise – then we in “the West” get oodles of info on that topic. I see this trend in how knowledge/information gets exchanged/covered as a symbol of the inequity in the world’s power relationships.

  3. John-Michael McColl permalink
    November 6, 2009 5:07 pm

    You make a good point when you argue that lecturing Mr. Karzai is unhelpful, just remember that such public moralizing is really intended for Mr. Obama’s domestic audience. However, my real problem with your post is that you miss the crux of the issue.

    What is fundamentally undercutting Mr. Karzai’s government is not heavy-handed advice, rather it is the West’s heavy-handed support. Afghanistan’s government will only become more legitimate when it becomes more responsive to the Afghan people. Western support inhibits this responsiveness because by funding and protecting the government, the West removes the government’s incentives to respond to the needs of its citizens. Mr. Karzai doesn’t have to face his people because he’s got NATO standing between him and them He can’t be thrown out of office by an election; they’re rigged. He can’t be thrown out of office by an uprising; he’s got US protection. If that protection were removed, I think you would see Mr. Karzai doing a lot more to win the support and loyalty of Afghans. More likely you would see him replaced by someone who could.

    You see, Mr. Karzai’s real constituency is in Washington, but he is not even accountable to the West. Like Ngo Dinh Diem and other American clients, Mr Karzai understands he has his patrons in a tough spot. Despite the lectures and threats, he knows Mr. Obama cannot abandon him, because that would mean losing “a war of necessity”. He also knows Mr. Obama cannot really replace him, since that would be an terribly risky and colonial thing to do.

    By being thus indispensable and unaccountable, Mr. Karzai is able to defy the laws political gravity, and survive while being both incompetent and unpopular. It’s true that the Afghan state lacks capacity – but what we have here is not a good and legitimate government facing huge challenges. We have a corrupt and illegitimate government that is rigging elections and facing huge challenges.

    Being polite about Mr. Karzai’s failings will not improve his performance. In fact, to be polite would be inappropriate when Canadian soldiers are dying on his behalf. As President of a foreign country, Mr. Karzai has the right to govern as he sees fit. But if he wants Canadian soldiers to defend him, he has to govern in a way that Canadians feel is defensible. Our leaders should be clear about that looks like.

    And if we don’t like what we see, (and I sure don’t) we should go home. Because ugly as that may be, it’s the only thing that will bring Afghanistan’s government back to earth.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 8, 2009 11:54 am

      Thanks for that very thoughtful comment. I agree that Western (not just American) protection is insulating Karzai from political opposition within Afghanistan, but we have to remember that a lot of that opposition consists of warlords and Taliban leaders. If Western forces were to withdraw, it’s quite likely that Karzai would be forced out of power, but I wouldn’t put much money on the proposition that his replacement would be a sweet-tempered liberal democrat who would proceed to “win the support and loyalty of Afghans” by governing in a less corrupt manner.

      In fact, corruption is exactly how you acquire the support, if not the loyalty, of the Afghans who are most influential: you pay off the tribal leaders, and give the warlords positions in your cabinet. This offends Canadian sensibilities in all sorts of ways, but a government that refused to play this game would be unlikely to survive. This situation might change over the long term, but it won’t change overnight no matter what Canada and other Western powers do.

      I’m certainly not suggesting that Canadians should stick around to help protect Hamid Karzai (or any other Afghan leader) indefinitely. We’re more or less committed to withdrawing in 2011 as it is, and the only real question is how we should behave until then. I would argue that we can best contribute to the security and stability of Afghanistan by letting the government rule as it sees fit, in order to allow it to build up some credibility as a force in its own right rather than a mere tool of occupation.

      Democratic responsiveness would be nice, but this is a long-term goal that will probably only be achieved if a critical mass of Afghans get behind the idea in principle (as opposed to simply being willing to use elections as one possible path to power for their preferred faction, which I suspect is where things are right now). For the moment, a strong government capable of standing up to the various armed factions and preventing a return to civil war after foreign troops leave is more important. This means that Karzai needs legitimacy in a democratic sense rather less than he needs respect from warlords, tribal leaders, and the officers of the slowly growing Afghan National Army. Acquiring that respect will be difficult as long as Karzai remains reliant on foreign troops, but it will be downright impossible if foreign leaders keep treating him like a marionette who can be expected to dance whenever they pull his strings.

  4. November 5, 2009 11:42 am

    Good to see you pursue the thread about tribal splits and implications.

    I saw the following today and thought you’d be interested (courtesy the AfkPakChannel)

    “And in an unusually candid assessment, the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told a small group of reporters earlier today that “Karzai is corrupt, O.K.,” but “he is our guy” in Afghanistan and “we have to legitimize him” if NATO has any chance of leaving the country (New York Times, AFP). “

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 6, 2009 11:48 am

      The thing is, we haven’t even got down to the tribal level yet – the Pashtuns and Tajiks are entire ethnic groups, and the Pashtuns at least are internally divided into a considerable number of tribes and sub-tribes. I honestly don’t know whether this is equally true of the Tajiks.

      I have to admit I’ve always thought of Bernard Kouchner as a bit of a soppy humanitarian, but in my opinion he’s saying some very sensible things about the Afghan mission. There’s a touch of presumption in the statement about legitimising Karzai – I would say that he got all the legitimacy he needed when the Independent Election Commission said he was president, and our job is simply to recognise the fact – but that’s really just a quibble.

      Another of Kouchner’s ideas is that European governments should be talking to each other about strategy in Afghanistan, instead of simply waiting to follow America’s lead. Lawrence Cannon should get on the phone today and tell Kouchner that Canada is ready to be part of that discussion, too.

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