The concerns about Afghanistan's volatile president are legitimate, but allies shouldn't lose sight of the big picture.
During my recent visit to Afghanistan, I got the chance to meet with military officers, mullahs, and senior government ministers, as well as journalists, NGO activists, parliamentarians, provincial governors, tribal leaders, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai himself. The figures represented a wide range of views, but there’s one thing virtually all agreed on: The sudden deterioration of relations between the United States and Karzai could not have come at a worse time.
Right now, the Afghan government is having trouble, simply put, governing. Nothing illustrates this more than the government’s inability to control the violence that has rocked the capital, especially over the last nine months. The economy is shaky as well. Prices have been skyrocketing in Kabul. According to local real estate agents, home prices in some parts of the city have risen 75 percent in the past year.
Wealthy Afghans, including warlords and those earning money from defense contractors and construction and security firms, have prospered. Nearly everyone else seems to live in abject poverty. "Welcome to Afghanistan," one imam with very moderate social views told me. "Welcome to the poorest, most oppressed country in the world."
Which quickly gets us to the "c-word" and Karzai. According to Transparency International, the country is one of the most corrupt places on the planet, in a league with Somalia and worse than Haiti. The inability to make progress on the issue is the ostensible reason why the exchange between Karzai and U.S. President Barack Obama in Kabul at the end of March was so tense: 25 minutes, no photos, no news conference. Karzai’s allies remain convinced that Washington wants regime change in Kabul and that the corruption issue is being used to delegitimize the current government.
Meanwhile, one opposition parliamentarian who attended a meeting with Karzai this week told me the president has "gone crazy." Karzai’s recent accusations that the United States and the international community are to blame for fraud in last year’s election stunned most people here. His comments that his government is on the verge of being seen as a "puppet government" and that the Taliban might even soon be seen as legitimate "national resistance" have been widely derided. His rival in the last election, Abdullah Abdullah, has accused him of "national treason." But scratch the surface, and you quickly encounter stark differences in narratives between the U.S. and Afghan sides.
Yes, corruption is an issue for Afghans. It damages the credibility of the government in the eyes of its own people. Some argue that it plays into the hands of Taliban leaders who tell people, "Support us and we’ll give what Afghanistan’s Western-backed government cannot provide: justice and security." But there’s also concern here that Afghan corruption has become an unhealthy obsession in Western capitals, accompanied by unrealistic expectations that distract from the most immediate concern: defeating the insurgents. Most Afghans continue to believe, what’s more, that the insurgency is in large measure financed, trained, and directed from Pakistan. It’s popular to talk about a proxy war between Pakistan and its rival India on Afghan soil.
One senior official, noting the recent arrest of a Pakistani military officer inside Afghanistan, told me it’s hard to believe that this fellow and his masters from Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency — which has supported the Taliban in the past — are motivated by concerns over poverty and corruption in Afghanistan. One tribal leader laughed when I asked about the Taliban winning hearts and minds. "They cut off hands and limbs and used to execute women in soccer stadiums," he said.
Everyone concedes that no one — save the Taliban, sadly — profits from a spiraling blame game. And the game continues. Yasin Osmani, a senior Karzai official, told the Afghan senate this week that foreigners are involved in 80 percent of the corruption associated with international economic assistance and reconstruction work. One well-connected observer told me Karzai was simply fed up with being lectured, not just by the United States, but by each and every U.N. official and European parliamentarian who turns up in Kabul.
This leads to the question of how to manage the relationship psychologically. Karzai discussed this very issue during our meeting. "A country with centuries of history, of cultural complexity, and a downtrodden economy that has been ravaged by war wants to feel respected," he told me. This may seem like misdirection to his critics, but it strikes a chord with many Afghans. I’ve heard repeatedly that the United States was over-the-top arrogant to inform Karzai of Obama’s visit just before the U.S. president landed in Kabul. The problem is, it’s not true. The Afghan side was informed several days in advance. But the larger point is clear: Trust on both sides is badly damaged.
Given what the country has gone through over the last 30 years, it’s a miracle that everyone I’ve met here still wants foreign troops — led by the United States and its allies — to stay. Even if some tribal leaders have their suspicions, there’s widespread acknowledgment in Kabul that premature withdrawal will collapse the progress that has been made and facilitate the Taliban’s return to power. One religious leader old me, "Pursue your interests; I only ask that Americans are honest and care for the Afghan people, too."
There’s also the danger of losing perspective. "It’s amazing what has been accomplished since 2001," Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul told me. "Nine years ago there was nothing here. Allies should listen to us, see what we’ve built."
Interior Minister Hanif Atmar agreed. "Our political world has been transformed," he said. "The Afghan people are being empowered to make decisions."
Human rights activist Sima Samar, said to have been runner-up for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, pointed out that while Afghans today debate police corruption, there were no functioning police in the country before the U.S. invasion. The quality of education you can dispute, she told me, "but girls go to school now. It’s an enormous step forward."
At Kabul University I came across a group of young students, male and female, sitting together and conversing on a lawn that was a minefield until a few years ago. The young women come from Ghor province in the northwest. It was the first time women from their village had come to Kabul for university education. Before I arrived, the men had been trying to help the women find suitable housing. A far cry from Taliban times.
Yes, Karzai is volatile. His recent outbursts are reckless. There’s frustration with him on the Afghan side, too. But maybe it’s time for allies to take a breath. One tribal leader told me he couldn’t care less about all the chatter about Karzai. "We understand why the United States came here." It would be "a global shame if the Americans lost the big picture and left before finishing what they set out to accomplish."