How to Save Karzai


Jul 15, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in Foreign Policy on July 15, 2008.

Hamid Karzai looks increasingly like a man presiding over chaos. It is hard to find anyone who believes that Afghanistan’s president is making much progress in his fight against militants and the endemic corruption that now plagues his government. Nearly seven years after U.S. forces entered Afghanistan, the Taliban and other insurgent groups are gaining ground in the country, the drug trade is at its highest levels ever, and most Afghans remain without basic services. According to Pentagon estimates, the level of insurgent violence is at its worst since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime, marked by a 40 percent increase in violence in eastern Afghanistan.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, to hear a growing chorus of criticism from some of America’s closest partners, including some who have suggested supporting any legitimate candidate other than Karzai for the 2009 presidential elections. At last month’s Paris donors conference, where participants pledged $21 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that it was only “by combating corruption and strengthening the rule of law that our commitment will be efficient.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for “active measures” to fight corruption in the Afghan government. It may sound diplomatic, but increasingly people close to Karzai are coming under scrutiny. There have been several testy meetings between senior diplomats and Karzai over the removal of Afghan government officials, including Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, for alleged corruption.

But for all of Karzai’s faults, there is nobody waiting in the wings. There are, of course, political rivals across Afghanistan, such as the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who would love to see Karzai humbled in the presidential elections. A range of more serious candidates also appears to be considering running, including former Interior Minister Ali Jalali, a competent technocrat who lacks significant popular support.

In other words, Karzai is still the best game in town. Not only is he superior to any plausible alternative, but he is a Pashtun, retains broad multiethnic support, and is Afghanistan’s most popular leader. In a December 2007 poll commissioned by ABC News, the BBC, and the German broadcasting consortium ARD, two thirds of Afghans rated Karzai’s performance as “excellent” or “good.” That’s why the United States and other NATO countries should stop undermining Karzai now, shore up support for him as the democratically elected president of Afghanistan, and help him show progress. Ultimately, that means supporting free and fair elections and letting Afghans choose their next president. But, right now, Karzai needs urgent help on several fronts. Click Here!

Above all, Karzai needs a police force he can trust. The police are the government’s frontline force in any counterinsurgency. Unlike the army, the police have a permanent presence in cities, towns, and villages. The police should be Karzai’s eyes and ears on the ground. But the Afghan National Police are more of a hindrance than a help right now. Its officers are corrupt, incompetent, under-resourced, and often loyal to local warlords rather than the central government. As one Afghan official told me on a recent visit, “Forget about the Taliban; our biggest problems are with the police.”

Recent Western training efforts are a good start. Local police are temporarily removed from their districts and replaced with Afghan National Civil Order Police units, which are trained to deal with urban unrest, civil disorder, and national emergencies. After several weeks of intensive training by U.S. and other NATO tutors, they return to their districts accompanied by embedded mentors. But these efforts remain woefully inadequate. Only about one third of the international police mentoring positions have been filled, an embarrassing figure compared with recent NATO efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Haiti.

Karzai could also use some help cleaning house. Afghans are rapidly losing patience with the corruption that has infected all levels of government. A recent Asia Foundation poll found that a startling three quarters of Afghans believe corruption is a serious problem. Most troubling, a majority think it is getting worse.

Again, active American support is critical here. Corrupt government officials, including those involved in the drug trade, need to be removed from office. There is no shortage of intelligence on who they are. The most effective way to do this may be to begin with the most blatant offenders, capturing and prosecuting individuals where there is solid evidence of criminal behavior, especially involvement in the country’s drug-trafficking business.

Karzai has been dragging his feet, partly due to concerns that cracking down on corruption will contribute to an already worsening insurgency. The United States can provide a critical diplomatic nudge, share intelligence, and provide much-needed political and military support for arresting corrupt officials. It can also speak out about corruption from the international donor community, whose vast sums of money have frequently lined the pockets of international contractors and Afghan expatriates, rather than going to local Afghan communities.

Not all of Karzai’s problems can be solved in Afghanistan, however. With growing frustration, the Afghan leader has repeatedly blamed his eastern neighbor for fomenting violence and even trying to assassinate him. Whatever the truth of these accusations, Karzai is pointing his finger in the right direction: Pakistan is, at a minimum, playing host to militants that represent a mortal danger to the Afghan state. And yet the United States, Karzai’s No.1 backer, still has no comprehensive political, economic, and military strategy to deal with that threat. The Cold War equivalent would have been to defend the Fulda Gap between East and West Germany without ever designing a comprehensive strategy toward the Soviet Union.

Solving Karzai’s Pakistan problem requires accepting that the war cannot be won militarily there, at least not by U.S. and NATO forces. Pinprick strikes by unmanned drones or quick cross-border raids won’t do the trick, since Counterinsurgency 101 suggests that territory held by insurgents needs to be cleared and held. Moreover, the current U.S. strategy toward Pakistan’s insurgency is not synchronized across military, political, and economic fronts, and it relies too heavily on building up Pakistan’s Army and paramilitary Frontier Corps. It has also failed to address key political issues, such as better integrating the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into Pakistan’s federal system. A feeble NATO military response inside Afghanistan may sink Karzai, but only a much broader regional effort can save him.

Karzai deserves his share of the blame for the lack of progress in Afghanistan, characterized by rising corruption, the inability of the government to protect rural villages, and challenges in delivering services to the Afghan population. Many rightly claim that he may not have been everything we hoped for in a leader. But with the Taliban and other militants making alarming gains, now is no time to cut and run from Afghanistan’s democratically elected president. Giving up on Karzai will only weaken an already weak state. That is in no one’s interest, except perhaps the Taliban’s.

Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at RAND, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and the author most recently of In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan (New York: W.W. Norton, forthcoming).

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