Barack Obama's strategy won't succeed unless he realizes that Hamid Karzai is neither the problem nor the solution.
President Barack Obama’s surprise trip to Afghanistan on Dec. 3 is just the latest sign that his administration’s latest review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is in full swing. "Today, we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have the chance to build a more hopeful future," he told an assembled crowd at Bagram Air Force Base. "You will succeed in your mission."
Back in Washington, officials are trying to determine what success looks like. They are assembling a comprehensive "report card" of U.S. efforts, with inputs from all the departments and agencies that have a hand in the region. The White House wants to know which of its policies have demonstrated success, and which ones are failing.
Many assessments will probably prove inconclusive. The effect of the U.S. troop surge on the military balance of power will be particularly tough to measure, especially in those regions of Afghanistan where new forces have only been at work for six months or less. This will also be true for a wide variety of other newly expanded programs, for which resources will need to be applied over a longer time frame in order to show concrete signs of progress. Kabul, after all, can’t be rebuilt in a day.
Amid this sea of ambiguity, at least one clear judgment is possible: Washington’s political strategy in Afghanistan deserves a failing grade.
The U.S. political strategy is comprised of different elements, many of which attempt to alleviate Afghanistan’s poor "governance capacity" — that is, its inability to provide basic services to its people. This is indisputably true. The Afghan government has proved itself incapable, for instance, of establishing local courts and legal institutions, to the point that many Afghans approach the Taliban to adjudicate their civil disputes. Afghanistan’s poor health care, education, and transportation infrastructure all hinder economic opportunity and development. These are serious problems, but they are common to many other poor, developing countries around the world. And many of those countries are not plagued by raging insurgencies.
As analyst Steve Coll pointed out this summer, those conducting the December review should focus on the fundamental — and truly political — question of whether a majority of the Afghan people and their leaders are working toward the same goals as their international allies. Today they are not. In the heady days after the Taliban were toppled, the Kabul government was widely accepted as a force for national and international unity. But over nine long years of war and mistakes on all sides, that unity has broken.
Many influential Afghans who are natural partners in the fight against international terrorism feel alienated from their government and are deeply frustrated with the United States for propping it up. For some, last year’s fraudulent presidential election was the final straw. Others, especially minority groups and women, fear the outcome of "reconciliation" talks between an exclusive, unrepresentative group of President Hamid Karzai’s cronies and Taliban insurgents. Still other powerful figures have been disappointed by recent parliamentary elections — another exercise tainted by massive, politically motivated fraud and whose results were greeted by protests from disenfranchised Afghans.
In short, there are good reasons to fear that Afghanistan is falling apart at the seams, and things have only gotten worse over recent months.
The Afghan government’s inability to mobilize public support makes the war more difficult and costly — in American lives and dollars — every day. As challenging as the U.S. military effort may be, it will become next to impossible should political fissures worsen, transforming the Taliban insurgency largely centered in Afghanistan’s south and east into a countrywide civil war.
Unfortunately, Washington’s policymakers have too often equated Afghan "politics" with the narrow question of what to do about Karzai. The Afghan president’s erratic behavior and the corruption of his closest allies are big problems, especially if Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has it right that he has become "decidedly anti-Western." Even so, Karzai’s critics usually stumble on the question, "If not Karzai, then who?"
This is the wrong question to ask. Karzai represents a major obstacle mainly because the new Afghan state was born with a fatal flaw — a presidency that dominates the national and provincial governments. Numerous assessments, dating back to the process that generated Afghanistan’s current Constitution, have lamented the fact that Karzai faces too few checks and balances and too few mechanisms for building and maintaining a national consensus. Afghanistan’s true problem is its government’s structure, not the personality flaws of its leader.
Many new democracies, especially those born in post-civil war conditions, write constitutions with strong parliaments so that former combatants can share power in the national government. Many select federal systems so that provincially elected leaders have a voice in the management of their internal affairs. Afghanistan has neither of these features, and it shows.
Nevertheless, calls for structural political change in Afghanistan have not been taken seriously within the U.S. government. Instead, officials have argued that Washington’s political failure could be reduced to a "Karzai-management problem." If we could only get the right balance of carrots and sticks, these policymakers have maintained, then we could convince Karzai to develop a functioning Afghan government.
And so, over the course of the past year, we have witnessed an assiduous U.S. campaign to build a better partnership with Karzai. That effort persists. Obama’s itinerary in Afghanistan Dec. 3 included a conversation with Karzai, reportedly to address their latest bout of tensions.
When cooperation with Karzai has failed, U.S. officials have tried to circumvent him by working directly with local Afghan officials or partnering with national ministries. Time and again, however, they end up running headlong into an omnipresent presidency. This is true, in part, because Karzai has complete authority to appoint provincial governors and hundreds of other local government officials. Afghan officials with the political authority to make critical decisions routinely defer to Karzai for fear of making the "wrong" call and falling out of favor. U.S. efforts to combat Afghan corruption have been especially stymied by Karzai’s personal interference. U.S. political strategy always recenters on Karzai because Afghanistan’s government revolves around the president.
Fostering meaningful political reform in any country represents a daunting challenge and should inspire some reasonable fears in Washington. However, in this case, the benefits of addressing the structural flaws in Afghanistan’s government outweigh the risks.
True, Karzai and his allies will fight any loss of control tooth and nail. They will accuse Washington of inappropriate interference in the affairs of a sovereign Afghan state. They might release hysterical public statements that make Karzai’s recent outbursts look like child’s play.
But U.S. officials need not be deterred by such charges. They must take into account the fact that Washington already interferes in Afghan politics every day, expending U.S. resources and manpower to bolster the current Karzai-centric system.
There are also real concerns that U.S. officials are not well positioned to manage the complex mechanics of Afghan political reform. The history of Washington’s interference in constructing Afghan institutions is not a happy one. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and other international officials did play central roles during the first constitutional loya jirga, and look where that got us.
But such hands-on manipulation might not be necessary this time around. Instead, Washington could offer a green light to a range of Afghan opposition leaders who would be willing to launch their own reform process. This group should include leaders from each of the main Afghan ethnic groups and political factions, such as Karzai’s 2009 presidential election challengers, former government ministers, and parliamentary opposition figures. An Afghan-led reform process that is inclusive, re-energizes constituents who are now sitting on the sidelines out of frustration with both the Taliban and the Karzai government, and begins to change the structure of the Afghan government in ways that foster national unity and power sharing would no doubt serve U.S. core interests in the country.
These are ambitious goals, but not unreasonable ones. The first step is to make sure that Washington’s December review is not turned into a bean-counting exercise that ratifies business as usual. A serious review will at least force the Obama administration to weigh the costs and risks of a new strategy against the failure of the present approach. Even better, it will encourage a policy that charts a new course — one designed to turn the tide of Afghan politics in a direction that encourages the U.S. and Afghan governments to work more productively on accomplishing their shared mission.