Our Man in Kabul


Nov 4, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Affairs on November 4, 2009.

What Hamid Karzai's Rise to Power Means for How He Will Govern Now

Abdullah Abdullah was the first Afghan to suggest Hamid Karzai should become president of Afghanistan. It was one day in mid-November 2001, and we were in the cockpit of a CIA transport plane heading from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Afghanistan's Bagram airfield—just liberated by Northern Alliance fighters—where Abdullah and I were to meet with the rest of the Northern Alliance leadership.

Although Abdullah cautioned that his view was not shared by all his comrades in the alliance, it did have the support of the three most powerful: Muhammad Qasim Fahim, the minister of defense, Younis Qanooni, the minister of the interior, and Abdullah himself, then the alliance's foreign minister. All three were protégés of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the revered and influential military leader of the Northern Alliance who had been assassinated by al Qaeda operatives on the eve of 9/11.

Abdullah explained that he and his colleagues recognized that the other elements of the Afghan opposition could never unite around a non-Pashtun leader or one identified with the Northern Alliance. Karzai, in contrast, had good connections across the non-Taliban spectrum and a better prospect of forming and holding a broad coalition.

Over the next several weeks, diplomats from India, Iran, Russia, and several European governments echoed Abdullah's suggestion as they gathered in Bonn, Germany, for a United Nations conference that would establish the new Afghan government. Such consensus seemed remarkable at the time, though I later learned that Abdullah had planted the seed during his earlier travels to these countries.

As the senior U.S. representative to the conference, I found myself in an unlikely alliance with representatives from Iran, Russia, and India, all of us seeking to persuade disparate groups to agree on an interim constitution and a provisional leadership. Four anti-Taliban Afghan factions were represented in Bonn: in addition to the Northern Alliance, which by late November had secured control of every major city in the country except Kandahar, there was a group loosely aligned with Iran, another based in Pakistan, and a large number of supporters of Mohammad Zahir Shah, the 87-year-old former king of Afghanistan who had been living for several decades in exile in Rome.

There were two main obstacles: first, the rest of the Northern Alliance leadership, including Burhanuddin Rabbani, the alliance's president, had been driven out of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996 and were reluctant to surrender the positions, ministries, and in Rabbani's case, the palace, which they had just reoccupied after five years in the hills. And second, at the other end of the spectrum, the large royalist faction favored the restoration of Zahir or a member of his family—or at least a more senior courtier than Karzai.

Karzai was a member of the royalist faction but was still in Afghanistan, where he was leading a Pashtun militia in an ultimately successful effort to capture Kandahar, the country's last Taliban stronghold. Eventually, all four Afghan factions coalesced around the idea of Karzai leading the next Afghan government.

The selection of Karzai is often attributed to the United States. But, in fact, Washington provided me no guidance on the subject, and I had never met Karzai. It was clear to me, however, that he had much broader international and Afghan support than any other candidate and was the only person on whom this gathering was likely to agree.

Qanooni headed the Northern Alliance delegation. Abdullah remained back in Kabul, where he worked to secure agreement from Rabbani and his colleagues in the Northern Alliance to cede their positions to the new regime being set up in Bonn. Russia, Iran, and India—all longstanding supporters of the Northern Alliance—lent their weight to Abdullah's ultimately successful effort.

Not surprisingly, Abdullah, Fahim, and Qanooni retained their positions in the new government. But once Karzai took office, he began to come under pressure from his Pashtun constituency to diminish a perceived ethnic Tajik stranglehold on the government's power ministries. Pakistan—a historical patron of the Taliban—was similarly unhappy, as these three figures were close to India, Iran, and Russia, all of which had supported the alliance's long insurrection against the Taliban.

As Karzai consolidated his power—first as the interim president chosen by the loya jirga in 2002, and then after being popularly elected to the presidency in 2004—he reduced his dependence on those who had brought him to power. Karzai first let go of Qanooni, who, in 2002, was demoted to minister of education and then left government to run against Karzai in the 2004 presidential election. Qanooni is now chairman of the lower house of parliament. Fahim served as Karzai's vice president and defense minister but was disappointed not to be chosen as Karzai's running mate in 2004. He lost his ministry shortly after Karzai's victory. Then, in 2006, Karzai unceremoniously dropped Abdullah from the cabinet. (Abdullah learned of his replacement during an official visit to Washington.)

Earlier this year, shaken by mounting criticism from the new Obama administration and preparing to face Abdullah in his campaign for another presidential term, Karzai sought to repair his links with Afghanistan's large Tajik constituency. He rehabilitated Fahim by selecting him as his running mate.

In the first round of the recent election, Abdullah received more than 30 percent of the vote—almost twice what Qanooni, the runner-up in 2004, had received. But Abdullah chose not to contest the second round, most likely because he recognized the difficulty in closing Karzai's substantial lead of 17 percentage points, even after nearly a third of Karzai's original vote count had been disallowed for fraud.

Now that Karzai has been declared the election's winner, the breach with Abdullah—the man most responsible for his original rise to power—could have very dangerous consequences. The last thing Karzai, NATO, and the United States can afford is the emergence of a renewed northern alliance of disaffected Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. Together, these ethnic blocs represent at least half the Afghan population.

Karzai has brought at least two of the former northern warlords to his side—Fahim and Abdul Rashid Dostum—but the strength and geographic distribution of Abdullah's first round vote suggests that he, not Karzai and Fahim, received the majority of the country's northern vote. The United States and the rest of the international community will consequently be pressing Karzai in the coming weeks either to bring Abdullah into government or at least provide him a respectable role among the leadership of a loyal opposition. This means affording him and his supporters some share in the spoils of government. Patronage is important to the functioning of political systems—including those in the United States—but is particularly so in impoverished states such as Afghanistan, where there are few other opportunities for advancement.

James Dobbins is Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation and the author of After the Taliban: Nation-Building in Afghanistan. He was the Bush administration's first envoy to Afghanistan.

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