With Karzai, Taking the Good with the Bad

As he prepares to visit Washington in the coming days, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is completing 10 years in office. His relationship with America began with mutual affection and infatuation, and deteriorated gradually over the years, first under President George W. Bush, then even more so during the early part of the Obama administration. But as in a bad marriage that stays together for the kids, both sides have continued to cooperate for the sake of their common interest in building a stable Afghanistan.

As new information continues to surface about corrupt and inept practices in Afghanistan — such as those surrounding the Ponzi scheme of the Kabul Bank, where hundreds of millions of dollars recently disappeared without accountability — American officials will hardly be effusive in their support for the visiting Afghan delegation. But as we seek to make crucial decisions with Karzai over matters such as the pace of American troop drawdowns in the next two years, the long-term presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, and preparations for Afghanistan’s presidential race in 2014, we would do well to remember Karzai’s strengths as well as his weaknesses. The alternative is to risk a toxic dynamic that may lead to big mistakes on one or both sides, such as an abrupt decision to downsize American forces precipitously in a way that could lead to civil war.

As Karzai completes his second and last full term allowed by the Afghan constitution, we need to encourage him to continue what he has been doing well, and also work to ensure that his nation’s next leader retains the desirable features of his presidency. They are essential to our common interest in preventing the return of terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

  • Karzai is not believed to be personally corrupt. This may sound like damning with faint praise, given the number of Karzai associates who are corrupt, and it hardly excuses the Afghan president from tolerating a weak rule of law. But it is nonetheless important; things would be far worse if he were criminal in his own behavior.
  • Karzai is not a killer. Again, to American ears, this may sound like a minimalist credential, but in a country that has suffered through a generation of warfare, not having blood on one’s own hands is no mean feat. Karzai is not believed to run his own death squads or to resort to extrajudicial actions to silence his enemies. Indeed, Karzai is clearly pained by the amount of violence that goes on within his country. To be sure, he often scapegoats coalition forces for contributing to the violence in a way that is not only inaccurate but insensitive and counterproductive. Yet it appears to be rooted in part in his genuine repulsion at the warfare he sees going on around him.
  • Karzai is the democratically elected leader. For all the valid concerns about fraud and other abuses that tainted the 2009 presidential elections, there is no doubt that Karzai won, just as he won the 2004 race. And while he was reluctant to allow the runoff in 2009 that was required by law, since no one gained an outright majority vote in the first round, he did ultimately relent — largely thanks to the diplomacy of Sen. John Kerry.
  • Karzai remains popular with Afghans. Despite the corruption associated with his government by many Afghans, they still feel that Karzai is the legitimate leader of the country, and his personal popularity remains consistently in the 70 percent range.
  • Karzai respects the constitution and intends to step down in 2014. Of course, there are contingencies that could still occur, but there is currently no reason to think he will seek to extend his time in the palace in Kabul extra-constitutionally. That should be automatic, at one level. But many presidents in young, weak states are tempted to see themselves as the indispensable leader of their nation and, out of ego or self-interest or self-preservation, suspend the rule of law to stay on. Every indication we have from Karzai is that he will not do so. That is crucially important.
  • Karzai has tried to unite the country ethnically. While he has undoubtedly favored his own family and cronies, he has not governed as a Pashtun chauvinist. In fact, some in Pakistan and elsewhere wrongly accuse him of being a stooge of the Northern Alliance — the largely Tajik group that opposed the Taliban throughout the 1990s and led the fight to depose it in 2001. Karzai’s appointments for Cabinet positions and governorships have been reasonably balanced across ethnic lines. His top peace negotiators with the Taliban have been Tajik, including former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, until he was assassinated, and then Rabbani’s son. In various periods, his foreign and interior ministers have had Tajik roots, his two current vice presidents are Tajik and Hazara, and his minister of mines is Uzbek. The list goes on.

None of this is meant to trivialize the problems we have with Afghanistan’s current government. Karzai’s mistakes are legion and his limits as a leader are evident. But working together, we do in fact have a chance to ensure that the next two years solidify the creation of a modern Afghanistan that survives political transition as well as the departure of most NATO troops and finally starts to move, if slowly and haltingly, toward an ability to run its own affairs. Only by building on what has worked during the Karzai regime, even as we seek to help Afghans improve upon it when Karzai steps down, can this important project achieve its minimal standards of success.