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The Afghan Tea Party

Ann Marlowe

NATO Secretary General Andrew Foghs Rassmussen agreed Saturday to Prime Minister Hamid Karzai’s 2014 target date for the handover of security responsibilities. “We have launched a process in which the Afghan people will again become masters in their own house,” Rasmussen said, adding that the rapid growth of Afghan security forces gave him confidence in the deadline. President Obama said the U.S. will stay “as long as it takes,” and the new accord between Karzai and NATO allows for some NATO presence after the turnover. Karzai stressed, however, that the U.S. must reduce its night presence around Afghan homes and roads..

As Afghan President Karzai and Obama agree to a NATO handover in 2014, Ann Marlowe, in Afghanistan, meets one man who has U.S. taxpayers’ interests at heart—Kabul’s anti-Karzai.

“In the presidential election, some people said I was the populist candidate. But this is wrong. I was the candidate of the American taxpayer,” says Dr. Ramazon Bashardost, sitting in his cramped office in the Afghan parliamentary office building. “For the $40 billion you’ve spent here, you could have built three Afghanistans. But in nine years you’ve not built one new dam! You have $18 billion in American aid that you cannot account for!”

As the Obama administration commits to a continuation of the costly U.S. presence in Afghanistan for at least four more years, it’s nice to know that someone has the American taxpayers’ interest in mind—even if it’s an Afghan politician.

And Dr. Bashardost—who holds three master’s degrees and a doctorate in law from French universities—is well worth American attention. While it’s unlikely he’ll ever lead Afghanistan, he offers a hard-hitting critique of American efforts from something very like the standpoint of an Afghan Tea Party.

The refined, soft-spoken and compactly built 45-year-old politician is best known for running his 2009 presidential campaign from a tent nearby. But this afternoon, the only evidence of eccentricity is his trademark white suit, trimmed in the red, black and green of the Afghan flag, that he designed himself.

This office is a hive of activity in a notoriously ineffective institution that has only in the last year or so begun to stand up to President Hamid Karzai. In Afghanistan, lawmakers are elected as individuals without official party affiliation, making for shadowy networks of influence and undisciplined individualism on the floor.

Currently, Afghans are waiting for the final results of September’s parliamentary elections, where more than 2,500 candidates competed. But accusations of fraud and disputes have deadlocked the situation for weeks.

A member of parliament from Kabul, Bashardost was the third-highest vote-getter in the August 2009 presidential elections, winning about 10 percent of the vote, employing a kind of barnstorming campaign almost unheard of here. In a country where even governors or parliamentarians get out much, Bashardost visited 28 of the country’s 34 provinces, railing against waste and corruption.

“It is time to listen to the ordinary people of Afghanistan,” he says, taking aim at most of the Afghan political class, including but not limited to President Karzai and his brothers. (Mahmoud is being investigated for corruption.) “When Afghans complain to me about the market economy, I tell them that we do not have market economy—we have mafia economy.”

Unlike nearly every other member of the Afghan elite, Bashardost maintains a seemingly genuine horror at the disparity between official perks and the standard of living of the average Afghan. When he was minister of planning (a position since abolished) in Karzai’s first administration, he would often spend his own salary to buy lunch for his ill-paid staffers. And an Afghan diplomat reports that when Bashardost was summoned to a meeting with other Afghan dignitaries at the Marriott hotel coffee shop, he took one look at the menu with its $8 coffees, threw the menu to the ground, and upbraided his colleagues for spending on a coffee what the average Afghan lives on for several days.

To an American, Bashardost looks like the local equivalent of a Tea Party candidate, and not the only one. Another highly educated Afghan politician, Dr. Ashraf Ghani,—the Beltway favorite who is now working for the very man he previously railed against, President Karzai—struck a similar theme during the election. Both men, who campaigned on anti-corruption platforms that relied heavily on their reputations for honesty, have doctorates and are serious intellectuals.

But while Ghani is also known for his violent temper and Pashtun nationalist views, Bashardost successfully played down his Hazara origins, and won respect and support among some of the Sunni Pashtun tribesmen who traditionally despise the Shia Hazara. (Earlier this year, I was surprised to hear rural Pashtun men in Khost say they had come very close to voting for Bashardost because he is not corrupt.) Bashardost’s problem is similar to that of Ghani: they’re both Tea Party candidates without a party, lacking a cohesive movement or political organization to back them. Both men were unwilling to make the compromises which are generally the lifeblood of politics and, unable to suppress their personal ambitions, failed to build a coalition that might have decisively defeated Karzai.

“I cannot choose between two corrupt politicians,” Bashardost insists. “I cannot support a warlord or corrupt politician. All Afghans in power are killers.”

What’s the way forward for the U.S. in Afghanistan? Bashardost envisions yet another sit-down in a country much given to sit-downs—this one of Western donor nation prime ministers, President Karzai, and major Afghan powerbrokers. “It is time to speak frankly. When you speak kindly with an Afghan politician, he will not think you are kind, but that you are weak or afraid.”

He also proposed a new ministry of anti-corruption with a dedicated police force to investigate the countless cases of government dishonesty. But a cynic might respond that, given the Afghan track record, we might then need another ministry to investigate the ministry of anti-corruption, and so on ad infinitum.

In one respect, Dr. Bashardost isn’t all that different from other politicians in power. While he rails against waste and corruption, he fundamentally believes that our massive aid transfer to Afghanistan should continue, undiminished, arguing that unless we continue to prop up Afghanistan, “al Qaeda will come back.”

For now, the foreign money pipe spews seemingly endless amounts of money. As a young business consultant here, Michael Guarino, told me the other day, “Old style colonialism was about extraction of resources. The new colonialism is about unlimited spending.”

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