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Why Karzai is Still Alive

Ann Marlowe

Why did the U.S. let President Karzai steal the August 2009 Afghan presidential election? And why have we kept him in office—and indeed, alive—in the increasingly doom-ridden months since, as he blithely ignores his promises to stem corruption and improve governance?

I believe we should have encouraged Karzai’s opponent Dr. Abdullah to pursue his candidacy in the second round, and even that we should have put enormous pressure on Karzai to withdraw. “Go live off your ill-gotten gains now, and you will die in your bed as an old man,” we should have said. “Or continue in your ways, and we will not lift a finger against your enemies.”

Afghans have their own answers, which run to conspiracy theories like “the United States plans to hand Afghanistan over to Pakistan.” I used to assume the answer was a combination of ignorance of the alternatives and lack of cultural confidence. And I do think these are part of it, especially the latter. We’ve grown so wishy-washy in our moral precepts that someone in a high position can be depended on to say, “Afghans have a different culture” no matter what catastrophic failing is under discussion.

A better answer came to me while reading Gordon Goldstein’s 2009 Lessons in Disaster. I’d avoided this book after hearing that it was all the rage in the Obama White House, but finally succumbed after hearing the smart, articulate author at an Asia Society panel on Feb. 24th. The book isn’t as bright as its author, but Goldstein’s discussion of the coup against Vietnam’s President Diem in 1963 is one of the more detailed I’ve read.

By 1963, American patience with Diem was wearing thin. As with the Karzai administration, the president had a corrupt brother who was, along with his wife, a truly bad influence. (Karzai has more than one over-reaching brother, but sisters-in-law aren’t much of a problem in Afghan governance since women have little power.) As with the Karzai administration, the Americans felt that the president was a basically decent man who was too weak to stand up for the right against his brothers and inner circle of advisors.

At the time, the CIA was still empowered to conduct assassinations overseas. But the obvious move was unpopular among Kennedy’s counselors. One of the reasons many in Kennedy’s administration opposed American support for a coup is that adage that became familiar to us in Iraq, “you broke it, you bought it.” If we deposed Diem, we would be responsible for what came next. And the next leader might not be an improvement.

A similar line of reasoning is at work today with respect to Karzai & Co.

I suspect that some relatively wise men in the Obama administration said, “Well, if we back anyone besides Karzai and it isn’t a win, we may find ourselves without a graceful way out. We may have to support that man to the bitter end. While as long as we have Karzai, we can always back out of our Afghan committment at some point, claiming that his corruption is just too much.”

Then too, having Karzai bumbling through a crude parody of governance allows the U.S. deniability. Can’t make the counterinsurgency work? Well, the government is rotten to the core, so no wonder. (The problem is, this is true—the counterinsurgency will NEVER work as long as there isn’t a government worth trusting.)

We act as though reducing the political sphere and political options in Afghanistan were the best way to increase security. The opposite is true. The messy hubbub of democracy is exactly what’s needed there. The giant void where civil society should exist will take decades to fill—but jumpstarting the political component is a good first step.

The late-April loya jirga (“grand council”) proposed by Karzai for negotiations with “moderate” Taliban would be a fine occasion for opening up the awful Afghan constitution for amendment. Mandating direct elections of governors and mayors, and giving real power to the elected provincial councils, would give rural Afghans a better choice than their current options, Taliban tyranny or an often- rapacious outsider appointed by Karzai. Grow a thicket of local ties that improve peoples’ lives, and gradually the incompetence of the president will become less and less important. Afghanistan needs time to grow a proficient political class—and space for them to practice. And by the next presidential election, the U.S. should make it clear to Mr. Karzai that his services are no longer wanted.

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