August 18, 2009

The Karzai Paradox

President Obama has justified his surge in Afghanistan with the security requirements of an imminent election. Doing so signifies that Obama is pinning his second term on the war, and betting the war itself on the election’s outcome. But with the stakes so high, too much gravity rests on Hamid Karzai, a man whose existence warps the fabric of his nation.

The possibilities surrounding Karzai contradict Obama’s goal of stabilizing the region.

US newspapers and think tanks are aglow over the political electricity in Kabul. Afghans are smiling, participating in Afghan Star, and avidly engaging the political process. Were they to taste the fruits of democracy, Taliban autocracy could suddenly appear twelfth century. However, advocates of “democracy promotion” as a means to modernize the Middle East usually leave out how unstable democracy can be, especially new democracies.

Karzai’s margin in the polls assumes he’ll ultimately emerge victorious, most likely after a runoff. His main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, may remain nothing more than a hypothetical, all the more reason to examine his triumph. Judging by his public criticism of Karzai, Dr. Abdullah is President Obama’s silent choice along with dark-horse Dr. Ashraf Ghani, a western-educated financier. Dr. Abdullah appears primed to challenge Karzai and his corrupt government, but would he be an improvement or an earthquake?

Not that Karzai is friends with Mullah Omar, but Dr. Abdullah, as the face of Tajiks and the Northern Alliance, will meet even greater military resistance from the Taliban. Karzai was usable, but Dr. Abdullah is purely an enemy. Karzai left the door open for negotiations while Dr. Abdullah will likely shut it. The odds of political reconciliation among Pashtuns and their militant elements seem a lot slimmer with a Tajik in charge.

The Taliban isn’t his only problem. Corruption in the Karzai government is Dr. Abdullah’s bread and butter issue, but cleansing the system will make a host of new enemies. Pashtuns whose tentative positions are snatched away by an accountable leader won’t see the bigger picture. Dr. Abdullah risks provoking the entire criminal network of Afghanistan with his crusade; admirable yes, but politically and physically perilous. Ousting Karzai is like turning over a boulder - prepare for the bugs.

Dr. Abdullah is probably aware of the potential inflammation his victory may cause to Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions. His strategy thus speculates the short term on the long term, hoping good government will trump ethnic tensions and radical Islam. A sound strategy, but only if he lasts the entire five year term. Afghan security forces will lag over the next two years and force America to commit more troops, mushrooming the occupation. Corruption could persist because of obstinate Pashtuns. If he loses support beyond his Tajik base, governing Afghanistan will become impossible.

Dr. Abdullah is high risk, high reward. Is that what President Obama is looking for?

Possibly, if the alternative is high risk, low reward. Hamid Karzai has lost the confidence of Obama, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Pakistanis, and the Taliban. Dr. Abdullah continually questions the veracity of polls showing Karzai ahead. Noting that Karzai’s popularity is far below 50%, Dr. Abdullah is threatening protests if he’s defeated, convinced that Karzai could never win the election outright. Rumors of fraud run wild. Many educated Afghans are staying home, believing the election is a sham. Already a Karzai victory doesn’t look victorious.

Karzai’s lead in the polls is a strike against democracy. Despite his reputation as Afghanistan's biggest problem outside of the Taliban, Karzai has polled as higher than 50% and settled around 45%. With an abundance of fringe candidates and dearth of quality options, those Pashtuns who want to see Karzai replaced are unlikely to jump to Dr. Abdullah’s ship. As one Pakistani analyst put it, “Afghan Pashtuns vote for a winning candidate instead of wasting their ballot by voting for a likely loser.”

American officials should fear the re-election of Karzai, who on top of his track record has proposed several initiatives certain to infringe on Obama.

One attempts to ban American military inspections without authorization from Afghan forces; another seeks to close Bagram prison, the new Guantánamo. Karzai insists on negotiating with high level Taliban figures and enjoys the controversial support of Abdul Rashid Dostum, who just returned from exile in Turkey. His corruption is legendary and a fraudulent vote would obviously be a disaster. Suppose, though, that Afghanistan experiences a clean election, high in turnout and low in violence, that redoubles Karzai’s position.

Unless he performs a miracle, Afghanistan will still be worse off post-election.

President Obama must overlook this ugly reality as he’s forced to laud the democratic process. He’ll have a rougher time explaining war in Afghanistan if democracy creates more problems than it solves.

[Update: Though this article was submitted to and rejected by the New York Times, that didn't stop the NYT from agreeing with its conlusion ten days later.
"Obama administration officials had hoped that the election would show that Afghanistan was moving forward enough to justify more money and troops. If the election produces a government that even Afghanis do not consider legitimate, that task could be impossible."
The NYT seems to pride itself with predicting the future after the fact. Octopus Mountain predicts the future before it happens.]

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