Keeping Up with the Karzais


By Connor Phillips.

You know things are bad in Washington when Secretary of State John Kerry makes more progress negotiating with famously mercurial Afghan President Hamid Karzai (pictured) than President Obama does with Congressional Republicans. Ted Cruz may have said some crazy things, but at least he never accused Obama of collaborating with the Taliban. 

Kerry flew to Afghanistan earlier this month to resolve a long-festering standoff over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the treaty required to allow a residual force of 5,000 to 10,000 American troops to stay in Afghanistan after their official 2014 pullout date. Although he managed to resolve most areas of disagreement, the two sides are still split over the issue of allowing US troops accused of crimes in Afghanistan to be tried in America. President Obama insists on this provision, which Karzai has refused to grant. Instead, Karzai has punted the question along with the BSA itself to the loya jirga, a traditional assembly of elders set to convene next month. If they do not approve the deal, then America will be forced to withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014 (as happened in Iraq), potentially imperiling the tenuous gains NATO forces have made against the Taliban over the past twelve years. 

This episode is but the latest in a long series of difficulties the US has had in dealing with Karzai, from his persistent refusal to crack down on corruption or the drug trade to his tainted re-election victory in 2009 to his 2010 threat to join the Taliban. At the time he was installed as Afghanistan’s president following the overthrow of the Taliban, however, Karzai had seemed like the fresh face of the future. He had spent his life resisting first the Communist and then the Taliban regimes in Afghanistan, and his pledges to reach out to Afghanistan’s warring ethnic and tribal factions and lead a national reconciliation appealed enormously to the West, who backed him for chief executive.

They soon had cause to regret their decision. As it turned out, the way in which Karzai planned to “reconcile” the country consisted of simply buying the loyalties of former warlords and local power brokers, allowing them to remain in control of their personal fiefdoms. Under this system, ordinary Afghans owe allegiance not to the central government in Kabul, but to whichever local strongman (typically on the Karzai payroll) provides for their immediate safety and settles disputes. Thus, Karzai was able to secure his own rule even while the Afghan state itself remained weak and underdeveloped, reinforcing traditional patronage networks instead of supplanting them. This largesse was funded by millions of dollars the CIA funneled to Karzai’s office in a bid to prop up the regime and buy influence within it, money that ended up subverting the American goal of building a functioning, accountable government. 

Karzai’s actions have engendered numerous issues for Afghanistan and the US. First, the payoffs emanating from his administration have enabled corruption to take root at all levels of Afghan society. The beneficiaries of illicit dealings often have close ties to the Karzai family itself, most prominently three of Hamid’s brothers: the businessman Mahmoud Karzai, the politician Qayum Karzai, and their half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was the most powerful person in the southern Kandahar region until his assassination in 2011. Ahmed Wali, himself a recipient of CIA payments, was widely suspected of building a business empire worth millions in the opium trade, a suspicion that seemed borne out by Hamid’s persistent refusal to crack down on the drug business. Second, without a strong state to oppose it, the Taliban was able to regroup and launch its insurgency, taking advantage of popular discontent with the highly publicized corruption of Hamid’s administration and personal wealth of his family members. Moreover, one of the militant organization’s main sources of funding is the continued opium trade. 

As the US prepares for a troop drawdown and Hamid nears the end of his second and, constitutionally, last term, the consequences of his actions are becoming even more dire. Hamid’s practice of paying off former warlords and ethnic leaders has papered over the divisions between Afghanistan’s ethnic groups without truly integrating them into an Afghan nation. And as elections approach to replace Karzai, these same tribal strongmen who tore Afghanistan apart in the civil war of the 1990s have become prominent candidates, suggesting that sectarian divisions are lurking just below the surface, waiting to explode into war again once American arms and money are no longer present to keep the peace.

Indeed, it is difficult to find any presidential ticket that lacks obvious sectarian undertones. With each presidential candidate required to name two running mates, educated and experienced candidates often select at least one ethnic leader with strong influence (and vice versa) in an effort to build a winning demographic coalition. This system has produced some strange bedfellows: the technocratic finance minister and former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, is running with Uzbek leader and alleged war criminal Abdul Rashid Dostum (one of many strongmen on the Karzai payroll), while former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik who came second to Hamid in 2009, has selected Hazara former militia commander Mohammad Mohaqiq. 

Complicating matters, the Karzai family is (somewhat predictably) not ready to relinquish power. Qayum has announced his candidacy for president and has pledged to find roles for his brothers Mahmoud and Hamid in his administration. (Interestingly, he is one of the few candidates not to place a former warlord on his ticket). Hamid could influence the outcome of the poll in his brother’s favor if he so chose: he recently appointed nine new members of the Independent Electoral Commission and staffed the Electoral Complaints Commission with political loyalists, raising fears that he intends to rig the vote. While the fact that he has refrained from endorsing Qayum has led to speculation that Hamid favors another candidate, possibly his foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, it is entirely possible that he is maintaining an appearance of propriety while manipulating events for his brother behind the scenes. In any case, Hamid is clearly not planning to fade away from Afghani politics after 2014—a mansion within the perimeter of the presidential palace is currently being renovated to serve as his post-presidential residence, indicating that he hopes to have at least some influence on his successor.

The prospect of continued Karzai dominance in Kabul may seem unsavory. But as the US learned the hard way over the past twelve years, in a country like Afghanistan, there are no ideal figures, and Qayum and Rassoul seem like the least bad options out of an unsavory group. The real problem is, even if Hamid’s preferred candidate wins, it seems unlikely he will be able to control the warlords his predecessor bankrolled, let alone the Taliban, in the event of a US pullout. By building a kleptocracy rather than a state, the Karzai family may ironically have planted the seeds of its own destruction.


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