The Karzai Dilemma

Afghanistan's president is far from the country's only problem. But he just might be its most intractable one.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
DUSAN VRANIC/AFP/Getty Images
DUSAN VRANIC/AFP/Getty Images
DUSAN VRANIC/AFP/Getty Images

Last week I met an official who had arrived recently at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, but who was adamant -- almost vehement -- about America's prospects for success in Afghanistan. Sixty-five percent -- or some very high percentage -- of Afghans were under 25, and they were focused on their future, not on the terrible violence of previous decades. They looked for inspiration to the West, he told me, not the Taliban. And whatever the obstacles, it was a war we had to fight and win, because if we allowed a rump Taliban state to develop in the south and east, we would pay the price with suicide attacks in New York and London.

So must the sturdy patriots of Saigon have sounded in 1968. We would win, and we could not afford to lose. But Afghanistan is not Vietnam 1968, or Iraq 2006, where any intellectually honest person had to recognize the fiasco in progress. It's true that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's jeremiads against the NATO coalition, the United States, the New York Times, and so on have reduced even the most optimistic officials to a tight-lipped "no comment," but do Karzai's obvious failings doom the whole enterprise? As 30,000 additional U.S. troops increase the pressure on the Taliban, and as the Afghan National Army continues, if haltingly, to mature, the yet slower process of standing up local governance might begin to take hold in secured districts and provinces. With a shift in momentum, even a thoroughly compromised President Karzai might find some Taliban leaders susceptible to reconciliation.

Last week I met an official who had arrived recently at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, but who was adamant — almost vehement — about America’s prospects for success in Afghanistan. Sixty-five percent — or some very high percentage — of Afghans were under 25, and they were focused on their future, not on the terrible violence of previous decades. They looked for inspiration to the West, he told me, not the Taliban. And whatever the obstacles, it was a war we had to fight and win, because if we allowed a rump Taliban state to develop in the south and east, we would pay the price with suicide attacks in New York and London.

So must the sturdy patriots of Saigon have sounded in 1968. We would win, and we could not afford to lose. But Afghanistan is not Vietnam 1968, or Iraq 2006, where any intellectually honest person had to recognize the fiasco in progress. It’s true that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s jeremiads against the NATO coalition, the United States, the New York Times, and so on have reduced even the most optimistic officials to a tight-lipped "no comment," but do Karzai’s obvious failings doom the whole enterprise? As 30,000 additional U.S. troops increase the pressure on the Taliban, and as the Afghan National Army continues, if haltingly, to mature, the yet slower process of standing up local governance might begin to take hold in secured districts and provinces. With a shift in momentum, even a thoroughly compromised President Karzai might find some Taliban leaders susceptible to reconciliation.

Well, maybe.

Evidence exists to sustain almost all views of the war in Afghanistan, and the first-time visitor –i.e., me — finds himself gazing at a kaleidoscope of belief and disbelief. What beliefs should one credit? I constantly found myself wondering why the believers believed and the skeptics disbelieved. Is optimism a priori or ideological, but pessimism grounded in reality — as any good pessimist would tell you? Does where you stand depend on where you sit — close to the action or far, in a position of responsibility or not, on the military or the civilian side?

 

After my admittedly scanty experience — a week in a forward operating base in Arghandab, a district just north of Kandahar, and three days each in Kabul and the Kandahar Airfield, a huge coalition military base — I am prepared to hazard a few generalizations. One is that Americans are a lot more hopeful than Afghans. Lt. Col. Guy Jones, commanding officer of the 2-508 Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division, which operates out of Arghandab, assured me that the Taliban, a rural insurgency, was a losing proposition in the country’s increasingly cosmopolitan urban centers, including Kandahar (which the Taliban now grips in a reign of terror). Kevin Melton, the very thoughtful, young, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) official who serves on Arghandab’s three-man "district support team," is persuaded that the slow knitting-together of the sinews of governance that he sees there can be, and will be, duplicated across the country.

Plausible enough, but try telling that to the villagers who gather outside the district governor’s office every morning. Their stories mostly have to do with "night letters" posted by the Taliban threatening those who collaborate with coalition forces, or corrupt contractors, or illiterate teachers. Try District Governor Haji Abdul Jabar himself, who assured me that the district shura — his parliament — was useless and security so bad he could barely travel around the area.

So did I come down on the side of the Afghans, who lived the "ground truth," as we say here at ForeignPolicy.com? Not altogether; both points of view felt predetermined. Americans are, of course, inveterate optimists, addicted to their own version of the mission civilisatrice. They approach each new venture with the blithe enthusiasm of a civil engineer mapping out a road through impassable terrain. Sometimes it works; mostly it doesn’t. But hope springs eternal. Afghans, of course, are inured to, and conditioned by, failure. The foreigners will help the Afghan people? That’s what the Russians said. And progress is an unfamiliar idea to people who have almost never experienced it. I once spent time in a village in northern India, asking people if things had gotten better over the years. Sir, no, nothing has changed. What about the paved road? OK, that’s new. And the school? Yes, that too. And so on. Progress was something that happened elsewhere, to others.

Of course, not all Afghans despair of their future: The single most hopeful figure I met was Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister and presidential candidate, who thinks that a combination of domestic entrepreneurs and a wired-up diaspora will fuel an economic boom — if only the Americans get out of the way. And some Americans, like the USAID official I met at a party at the embassy who assured me that virtually everything her agency did was a grotesque waste of money, seemed almost as complacent in their sense of futility as others did in their optimism. The journalists I talked to generally viewed the civilian side of the effort in Afghanistan — though not necessarily the military side — as laughable. Journalists, of course, do see the ground truth. But we have a bias, too: We would much rather be caught out disbelieving than believing. Naiveté is the one unforgivable sin. Whose reputation has suffered for loudly insisting that the surge in Iraq was doomed to fail?

 

So I subtracted for bias in all directions, and I view my conclusions as provisional. I spent my time in Afghanistan looking at, and talking to people about, the civilian side of the effort; beyond that, I’m just another reader. But I do leave Afghanistan with a number of (provisional) observations:

1) Historic experience suggests that we won’t make much headway. Our efforts at state-building — or even "building capacity," as we more modestly say today — have succeeded in postwar settings with a prior history of governance, like Germany and Japan after World War II. In postwar settings where deep antagonisms remain, like Bosnia and Kosovo, we have made much less progress toward building a legitimate state. Because much of Afghanistan remains a war zone, consumed by civil strife, the inherent probability of success is low.

2) Nevertheless, tender shoots of governance have broken through Afghanistan’s ancient crust. In places like Arghandab, where the Taliban presence has been significantly reduced, local government has begun to operate, and people have begun to look to the state for economic opportunity, basic services, and the redress of grievances. That’s called the social contract.

3) This is necessarily the work of slow accretion. Stanley McChrystal, commanding general in Afghanistan, has promised to deliver what he calls "government in a box" to newly cleared districts. The military hopes to stand up, or perhaps defrost, as many as 48 of these in coming months. This is a fantasy only a military bureaucracy could entertain.

4) The great struggle on the civilian side will be increasing the number of success stories and connecting them to the provincial and national government — and doing so over the next year or so. Will this happen? Here I do see a meaningful pattern of belief and disbelief: Non-officials close to the ground are deeply skeptical of Afghanistan’s willingness and capacity to establish what is known as "subnational governance." There may be no way of getting around the Karzai problem. "Does Karzai want to see provincial government improve?" asked a Western official involved with the process. "Or would he prefer to keep it weak and feeble?"

So I come back to the first question: Can it work so long as Karzai remains Karzai? The West’s Karzai problem is that he spews venom and tolerates warlords like his brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai. Afghanistan’s Karzai problem is that while he is obsessed with his personal legitimacy, he seems indifferent to the creation of a legitimate state. That may be an insuperable problem. So mark me down as a skeptic.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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