Problems posed if Karzai is re-elected


WORLD VIEW:Whether the ‘civilian czar’ is re-elected or not, Afghanistan has challenging times ahead, writes PATRICK SMYTH

WHEN HAMID Karzai ran for president, in 2004, he was clearly America’s man in Afghanistan. Vice-president Dick Cheney praised his inauguration day as a major moment “in the history of human freedom”. In capitals around the world this dapper man with his impeccable, reassuring English, seemed almost too good to be true – a “civilised” Afghan promising reconciliation and western-friendly policies.

Karzai’s own story helped. Two weeks after 9/11, he had hopped on the back of a motorcycle in Pakistan, and journeyed into the Taliban-infested Afghan mountains to persuade the tribes to revolt. He had no gunmen with him. Just a satellite phone from the CIA and faith in his powers of persuasion.

Today he is notionally at the helm of a dysfunctional, tribally divided state mired in corruption and drugs, some at least of which is linked directly to the Karzai family. He is fighting a war that gets bloodier by the month and is politically in hock to powerful warlords; his relationship with the US and perceptions of him internationally have changed qualitatively. Karzai is as suspicious of them as they of him.

For the international community the question has for some time been, “Can we work with this man?” if, as appears likely, he wins re-election with 50 per cent in the first round, or in a second run-off round.

New York Timesjournalist Elizabeth Rubin describes vividly the growing divide: “By late 2007, Karzai’s turn toward accommodation with warlords, tribalism and semi-retired jihadis – and away from the international community – seems to have been completed. The palace had become like a Shakespearean stage, its officials, like so many Iagos, filling Karzai’s mind with plots and treachery. The British and the Americans, worried that Afghanistan was sinking beyond repair, conceived the position of a civilian czar who could co-ordinate the UN mission and the Nato mission and possibly bring some order into the chaos of the Arg palace.”

But, ahead of the elections, Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US envoy to Kabul, admits that “because they couldn’t construct a plan to replace Karzai, I think they toned down the criticism and kept the option open of working with Karzai, should he get re-elected”. US officials now back the idea of a new chief executive to work under him to reform the Afghan state. Rival presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank employee, has been widely tipped and has even, reportedly, been offered the job by Karzai. To date he has been most reluctant; on his website, he has branded the Karzais a mafia family – “Karzai Incorporated”.

But what such discussions crucially fail to address are the deep underlying tribal/ethnic challenges facing the Afghan state. These shape not only political dynamics in Kabul, perceptions of the legitimacy of central government, the military and political struggle with the Taliban, and also the corruption issue. In particular, the continued and growing alienation of the Pashtun community.

With the overthrow of the Taliban, the ethnic Tajiks who made up the bulk of the victorious Northern Alliance – but only 24 per cent of the 30 million population, 40 per cent Pashtun – considered themselves the victors. At the Bonn conference in 2001 to create the future Afghan government, the Northern Alliance Tajiks demanded and got the most important ministries. A clique of their officers from the Panjshir valley –“Panjshiris” – would also come to dominate the command levels of the armed forces, the intelligence and secret police agencies they retain today.

Given Afghanistan’s demographics, everyone knew they needed an ethnic Pashtun as president, and Abdullah Abdullah, likely to come second to Karzai in this week’s election, and then with the Northern Alliance, pressed the case for the latter. He seemed the perfect choice at the time, but many Pashtun still see him as little more than a fig leaf on a Tajik administration.

Unsurprisingly, in the run-up to the election, much of the Taliban propaganda has focused on the fact that Karzai’s running mate is a hated symbol of Tajik power, former defence minister Muhammad Fahim.

“Pashtun nationalism alone does not explain the Taliban’s strength, which is fuelled by drug money, Islamist fervour, corrupt warlords, hatred of the American occupation and the hidden hand of Pakistani intelligence agencies,” American academic Selig Harrison argues. “But the psychological cement that holds the disparate Taliban factions together is opposition to Tajik dominance in Kabul. Until the power of the Panjshiris is curbed, no amount of American money or manpower will bring the insurgency to an end.”

The new US commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, is due to send President Obama his assessment of a counter-insurgency strategy. It is likely to call for more US troops on the ground and to argue for the critical importance of strengthening the capacity of the Afghan National Army to allow it take centre stage in the battle against the Taliban.

That challenge, however, is intimately linked to the latter’s inability to recruit Pashtun because of what a recent Rand study for the Pentagon noted was its perceived sectarian make-up.

Whether or not Karzai is re-elected, and whether or not the increasing support for either local or national negotiations with the Taliban prevails, it is a nettle that Afghanistan has to grasp.

Patrick Smyth is Foreign Editor of The Irish Times