The Hamid Karzai Problem

The Afghan president who stole reelection could be our biggest hurdle to success

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Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is widely thought to have stolen the March election, stoking concerns that Afghanistan's disastrous corruption could be the undoing of our mission there. Some in the U.S. and Afghanistan -- particularly Karzai's defeated challenger, Abdullah Abdullah -- are suggesting a second, runoff election. Even Karzai's own staff now acknowledges that as a possibility. It would have to be held soon, as winter conditions would impede a national election. Experts largely, though not universally, agree that Karzai's weakness and perceived illegitimacy would embolden the Taliban, rendering the war effort difficult to impossible. What, if anything, can the U.S. do to solve the ever-growing Karzai problem? And does the military understand its importance?

  • Does U.S. Understand the Karzai Problem? Dexter Filkins, in a long New York Times Magazine profile of top Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal, worries that American forces don't comprehend the importance of Karzai's legitimacy problem. Filkins described Karzai's government as "already among the most corrupt in the world" and an "even worse" threat to success than the Taliban. "The Americans and their NATO allies are confronting the possibility that the government they are supporting, building and defending is a rotten shell." Filkins writes. "But increasingly, McChrystal, as well as President Obama and the American people, are being forced to confront the possibility that they will be stuck fighting and dying and paying for a government that is widely viewed as illegitimate. When I asked McChrystal about this, it was the one issue that he seemed not to have thought through."
  • Don't Repeat Disaster of First Election Ahmed Rashid argues that the original election deeply tolled Western forces to little benefit. "What is now clear, however, is that the flagrantly dishonest elections have undermined the government and its Western backers, jeopardized future Afghan trust in democracy, and given the Taliban more reason to claim they are winning," Rashid writes in the New York Review of Books. "In Babaji, a town in Helmand that was reclaimed by British forces with the loss of four soldiers this month, only 150 people voted, out of 80,000 who were eligible. The British suffered thirty-seven dead and 150 wounded in the six-week Helmand campaign-- ostensibly to provide security for the vote. It will be difficult to maintain the morale of Western troops for long under such circumstances."
  • Risking Tajik-Pashtun Split Peter Galbraith warns in the Washington Post that Karzai's stolen election could alienate the ethnic Tajiks of Afghanistan, splitting the country. "Both Karzai and the Taliban are Pashtun, Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, which makes up about 45 percent of the country's population," writes Galbraith, a former diplomat. "Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main challenger, is half Pashtun and half Tajik but is politically identified with the Tajiks, who dominate the north and are Afghanistan's second largest ethnic group. If the Tajiks believe that fraud denied their candidate the chance to compete in a second round, they may respond by simply not recognizing the authority of the central government. The north already has de facto autonomy; these elections could add an ethnic fault line to a conflict between the Taliban and the government that to date has largely been a civil war among Pashtuns."
  • Implement a Power-Sharing Agreement Ahmed Rashid proposes a compromise between Karzai and his opponent. "An October runoff between Karzai and Abdullah may win back the credibility of the democratic process if that election is more tightly run, but it will leave the country paralyzed for most of the next two months," Rashid writes. "During that time there could be severe ethnic tensions. Karzai is a Pashtun while Abdullah's mother is a Tajik. We can expect local conflicts, assassinations, and a breakdown in law and order--while the Taliban will further justify their condemnation of democracy as an infidel conspiracy. The best option would be for the US to pressure Karzai to accept a national government that would include Abdullah and other opposition candidates."
  • Ending Corruption Begins With Karzai Spencer Ackerman suggests local corruption is the real issue, but that Karzai must be addressed first. "I spent a couple of days in Paktia Province about this time last year asking some farmers and shopkeepers about their local leaders and I heard that they were part of a chain of corruption that constantly kicks up to the Karzai government. Whether it's true or not, it was the perception, at least in this one area -- turtles all the way down, so to speak," the liberal foreign affairs blogger writes. "Our options here are to bolster a government that stole an election, on the dubious presumption that such a government is interested in something beyond its power; or to Americanize the effort. This is not Iraq, which has lots and lots of infrastructure and money, where there are engineering projects to improve and an expectation on the part of the people that, say, they should have electricity all day. This is Afghanistan, a different thorny mess of problems, where we might be able to salve government weakness, but local improvements can't be disconnected from the problems at the top."
  • Get Tough With Karzai The New York Times's Thomas Friedman calls supporting Karzai "stupid" and insists on a hard line. "We have to be very careful that we are not seen as the enforcers for this system," he writes. "Karzai is already trying to undermine more international scrutiny of this fraudulent election and avoid any runoff. Monday his ally on the Electoral Complaints Commission, Mustafa Barakzai, resigned, alleging 'foreign interference.' That is Karzai trying to turn his people against us to prevent us from cleaning up an election that he polluted."
  • Government Legitimacy Secondary to Local Security Richard Fontaine and John Nagl dissent in the L.A. Times. "Electoral fraud will render our task in Afghanistan more difficult, but it does not make counterinsurgency impossible," the Republican national security professionals write. They point out that, in early 2007, Iraq's government was seen by many Iraqis as corrupt and illegitimate. However, the U.S.-led surge brought stability and security, which stabilized the country and restored Iraqi trust in governance. "This is not to say that a stolen presidential election is meaningless. But our main goal should be helping the Afghan government work at the local level."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.