Losing Obama

Losing Obama

Ahmed Rashid rightly derides both the Bush and Obama administrations for their inconsistent approach to Afghan President Hamid Karzai (“How Obama Lost Karzai,” March/April 2011). But it is a very America-centric view to suggest that it was Barack Obama who lost Karzai.

Karzai runs a country that Transparency International ranks as the second-most corrupt in the world. For many Afghans, government is a predatory institution in league with local power brokers. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother, is a top official and much-hated predator in Kandahar province, where he is thought to do business and drug deals with the Taliban. Another Karzai brother obtained a 7 percent interest in Kabul Bank with no cash outlay. The bank subsequently collapsed, and the bailout has now consumed a sum that is a considerable portion of Afghanistan’s national budget.

Karzai is not, as Rashid writes, a “twice-elected” president. Karzai returned to office in 2009 only after the election commission he appointed conspired with his political allies to produce more than 1 million phony Karzai votes. Last year, Karzai used extraconstitutional means to change the rules for the parliamentary elections. When the results still did not go his way, he set up an illegal tribunal to remove opposition parliamentarians. As a result, many Afghans now see both the president and the parliament as illegitimate.

Rashid is right when he says that neither Obama nor his top advisors think much of Karzai. However, the problem is not that the U.S. government has been too antagonistic toward Karzai, but that it has been too tolerant. The Obama team continues to act as if Karzai were a partner in the fight against corruption, when he and his family are its beneficiaries. Providing anti-corruption assistance to a thoroughly crooked government only makes for more effective thieves. The Obama administration lost the chance to support democracy when it initially went along with a U.N. effort to hush up the fraud in the 2009 presidential election and did little to insist on fair rules for the parliamentary elections. It now has to live with the regime’s legitimacy deficit.

U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan depends on having an effective local partner. With the corrupt, ineffective, erratic, and illegitimate Karzai government in power, the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy simply cannot work. Karzai has not yet lost Obama, but he is in danger of losing his country.

Peter W. Galbraith
Former U.N. Deputy Special Representative to Afghanistan
Montpelier, Vt.

Ahmed Rashid replies:

I stand by my article and the issues I raised in it about the long, complicated relationship between the United States and Afghanistan over the past 10 years. Every part of that relationship including the issue of corruption, which I raised myself and which Peter Galbraith has emphasized, has a history behind it. The avarice and greed of individual Afghans are no doubt partly to blame for the corruption. But so is the United States, with its years-long policies of paying off warlords, which allowed the drug economy to take root, and its lack of investment in an indigenous Afghan economy.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

CAPTBOBALOU: It may be that Karzai failed to understand the nature of a transparent democracy. The voices are rarely unified, the policies rarely clear. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the United States can’t be trusted. 

KUNINO: The U.S. civilian government backed Karzai as president and is stuck with the fact that the man it hustled into the Afghan presidency isn’t able to do everything that Washington would like him to do. But could any other Afghan president do better?