What is to be done about Hamid Karzai?
As Nick Clegg tellingly asked the Prime Minister recently, what do we say to those many in Britain who wonder why our young men should be dying for a Afghan President whose support is plummeting (and ours with it) because of corruption and whose attempt to get re-elected has been, to say the least questionable.
The UN Commission commenting on the election has said that the level of corruption in its conduct was so high that there should be a run off between President Karzai and his principle opponent Abdullah Abdullah. It seems possible, but unlikely that Karzai will resist this. Despite his associates initial comments about foreign interference, it would be almost impossible for him to resist the combined international pressure if he tried. But a run off election would be extremely expensive, very difficult with approaching winter and would dangerously extend the present damaging period of instability, from which only the Taliban is benefitting. And, as Hilary Clinton admitted yesterday, even if there was a run off, it seems almost certain that Hamid Karzai would be elected.
Some say that Karzai II must be very different from Karzai I and the international community (and especially Washington) must make it is so.
He must be persuaded to have a Government of National Unity (GNU), which would include his main rival in the election, Abdullah Abdullah and also the representatives of all ethnicities in multi ethnic Afghanistan. He must then reach out and run an administration for the whole country, rather than one whose primary driver is the Pashtun interest. And finally Karzai II must at last begin a serious programme to tackle the corruption which is embedded in his Government (and some say even in his family) and which is eating away at his support – and ours – amongst the people of Afghanistan and especially among the Pashtun’s, who are increasingly turning to the Taliban in consequence.
This all makes perfect sense and we should certainly try it. But we should be aware that it is far from certain to work. A GNU is precisely what Karzai I started out with. He was genuinely elected by all sections of Afghanistan and his first Government was a genuinely national one. But President Karzai has not proved very good at holding together broad coalitions and it was not long before his early allies, especially in the Northern Alliance, soon became his most determined opposition. I am not at all convinced that he would be able, this time to make a success of what he so signally failed to make a success of previously.
And to ask him to tackle corruption seriously in the way that we would hope, would be to ask him to knock away one of the principle props of his Government. He has not proved keen on doing this in the past, despite heavy pressure from the US and others. I am not at all sure that this is likely to change in the future.
Could we find a more subtle way of responding to the election of President Karzai Mark II?
One of the major problems we have faced in Afghanistan is the mismatch between the theory and the practice of Afghan Government. Thanks in large measure to the intervention of the West, Afghanistan is, in theory, a centralised Governed country in the model of the classic Western nation state. But in practice, Afghanistan is what it has always been for the last 1000 years- a deeply decentralised country based around its tribal structures.
Could this be the opportunity to tackle that issue head on, by shifting our emphasis from building up Kabul structures, to building up local ones, running with, rather than against the grain of Afghanistan’s tribal system? Next year there are local elections in Afghanistan and these could offer a perfect moment to make this shift of emphasis, by switching much of the aid we are currently pouring in to help President Karzai build up his Government, towards increasing the capacity of local and regional government in the country.
This switch could have three fairly immediate beneficial results.
First it would mean that we were at last working with rather than against the grain of Afghanistan’s decentralised and tribal nature.
Second it would deal with the problem of President Karzai, not be rejecting his election (as some foolishly suggest) but by the simple expedient of making him matter less, both in Afghanistan and to our effort there. I don’t suppose we could ever or quickly get to the position of Switzerland, where everyone knows there is a President, but no-one knows who it is – but we could at least travel several large steps in that direction.
And lastly, shifting the government Afghanistan towards the local and tribal level would create a much better context for an energetic pursuit of the new policy of “Taliban reconciliation” that everyone, from President Obama down, now seem to recognise has to be a key part of the future mix, if we are to begin to turn things round in the country.
When it comes to contemplating a second Karzai Presidency in Afghanistan, we have a real chance to turn a problem into an opportunity. We should grasp it.