Are We Lucky to Have Hamid Karzai?

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai has a less than sterling image. Accusations of corruption, fecklessness and electoral theft have dogged him persistently since the August presidential elections. Some columnists have lately argued that his failings make the Afghan mission unwinnable. But are we taking Karzai for granted? The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens offers a surprising defense of the Afghan president. Stephens argues that U.S. strategy is mostly to blame for problems in Afghanistan--not Karzai. Is he right?

  • Karzai Is a Disgrace, Devise an Exit Strategy, writes Tom Hayden in the Los Angeles Times: "Has it occurred to anyone in the White House national security circles or the pundit class that these recent American deaths were wasteful and immoral? That sending Americans to die for an unpopular regime of warlords, landlords, drug dealers and CIA assets (Karzai's brother) is impossible to justify? And that rather than admitting the mistake, the president and his advisors are preparing to compound it?" Hayden argues that the U.S. should encourage negotiations with the Taliban and determine a swift exit strategy.
  • We're Lucky to Have Him, writes Bret Stephens, who paints a dismal portrait of Afghan leadership over the last 30 plus years. "Just how bad, really, is Hamid Karzai?" The Wall Street Journal columnist asks. "Let's Compare":

Is Mr. Karzai as bad as his immediate predecessor, Mullah Mohammed Omar, under whose medieval rule Afghanistan became not just a safe haven for al Qaeda, but a byword for Islamist barbarism? Is he as bad as what came before the Taliban: Four years of unrestrained civil war in which nearly all of Kabul was blasted to ruin?

Is Mr. Karzai as bad as the Soviet-backed governments of Mohammad Najibullah and Babrak Karmal, who applied the usual Communist methods of rounding up, torturing and killing tens of thousands of real, suspected or imaginary political opponents? Is he as bad as Mohammed Daoud Khan, who in 1973 overthrew the Afghan monarchy in favor of a repressive, but also incompetent, one-party system?

Or is Mr. Karzai a leader on a par with Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, who was politically weak and allegedly somewhat corrupt but essentially decent, civilized and well-meaning? Today, Zahir's rule is remembered as a golden age in Afghan history.

Stephens wants to undercut the claim that the U.S should withdraw because Karzai's failings doom prospects for victory. He concedes that Karzai is feckless but doesn't blame him for the quagmire in the U.S. war effort: "Our failures in Afghanistan so far have mainly been our own, and they are ours to fix. To blame Mr. Karzai is to point the finger at the wrong culprit in the pursuit of disastrous, dishonorable defeat."

  • A Feeble Leader Who Needs Our Help, writes Max Boot, also in The Los Angeles Times: "So far, Karzai has been oddly disengaged from the war raging around him. Rarely if ever does he visit his own troops in the field, go to hospitals to comfort the wounded or honor the dead... Karzai doesn't even give speeches to rally his people in the effort to defeat the Taliban. When he does speak out, it is usually to bemoan civilian casualties caused by the Western coalition, inadvertently helping to further a Taliban propaganda line. Most of the time, though, he prefers to shelter behind the high walls of his presidential compound in Kabul, where he can focus on backroom deal-making." But rather than give up on Karzai, Boot says President Obama should coach him on how to be a wartime leader just as President Bush mentored Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki during the worst days of the Iraqi insurgency: "Give Karzai some pointers on how to be a leader in wartime. The ultimate success or failure of our war effort could turn on whether Karzai can don that mantle as successfully as he does his trademark chapan cape and karakul hat."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.