Hamid Karzai in Trouble?

Hamid Karzai gets tough with Lord Ashdown
By David Blair; Telegraph, January 29, 2008

Of the 10 men who have served as Afghanistan's president in the past three decades, four were murdered and one strung up from a lamppost and disembowelled.

David Blair: President Pervez Musharraf's many faces
Bear this in mind when you judge President Hamid Karzai's erratic behaviour and his abrupt withdrawal of support for Lord Ashdown's appointment as UN envoy in Kabul. The former Lib Dem leader knows from personal experience that the worst possible fate for a British politician is swift elevation to the House of Lords.

Hamid Karzai must demonstrate his independence from the West

The penalty for political failure in Kabul can be very bad indeed. Mr Karzai must live with the knowledge that every one of his predecessors for the past 107 years, whether kings or presidents, was overthrown violently. You have to go back to King Abdur Rahman, who died in 1901, to find an Afghan leader who managed to avoid being ousted or assassinated.

Hence Mr Karzai's struggle for political survival is uppermost in his mind. Across the Muslim world - and most pertinently among his own Pashtun people - Mr Karzai faces the charge that he is nothing more than a Western puppet. American and British soldiers keep him in office, say the critics, and his leadership is merely a tool for Washington's "war on terror" which, they claim, is really a "crusade against Islam".

So Mr Karzai must seize opportunities to demonstrate his independence. This means picking occasional rows with a Western ally, as he did by criticising the performance of British troops in Helmand last week. Publicly humbling a prominent foreigner might also be expedient - and Lord Ashdown fitted the bill.

Yet behind these manoeuvres lies a profound division between Mr Karzai and his Western allies. If he is to survive, Mr Karzai must have powerful Afghan allies, yet this causes immediate tension with his Western supporters. They object to him having anything to do with drug smugglers, warlords, corrupt businessmen or Taliban-style Muslim extremists.

Yet in the quicksands of Afghan politics, these are very important people. If Mr Karzai is not allowed to deal with them, he may not survive for long. Moreover, political coalitions in Afghanistan do not form for ideological reasons. No one important will back Mr Karzai because they approve of his economic policies or his plans to extend primary education for girls. They will back him for money.

advertisementA feature of Afghan politics is that large piles of cash - or the opportunity to make illicit fortunes from government contracts - find their way into the pockets of deeply unsavoury people. Mr Karzai's chief complaint about the British in Helmand was that they prevailed on him to sack the provincial governor and a local police chief. One was implicated in the drugs trade, while the other was a suspected murderer.

But regardless of their morals, Mr Karzai saw them as necessary allies in a volatile area. Their removal, he said, only opened the way for Taliban subversion.

Behind the argument about Western policy towards Afghanistan lies a struggle between optimism and realism. Optimists think that Afghanistan can be recreated as a stable, prospering democracy.

History cautions otherwise. Afghanistan has been fought over for millennia, with conquerors ranging from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan. The modern state emerged in the 19th century as a buffer between Russia's Tsarist Empire and British India. Its present boundaries, set during King Abdur Rahman's reign between 1880 and 1901, are a classic example of imperial statecraft. The vital eastern frontier with present-day Pakistan was drawn by a British civil servant, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, in 1893.

These manoeuvres created a landlocked country, largely devoid of natural resources and riven by ethnic and religious rivalries. The Durand Line slices through the Pashtuns' homeland, dividing them between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even today, populists call for Afghanistan to repudiate the border, invade Pakistan and forge a united "Pashtun-stan".

Modern Afghanistan has always been ungovernable. No ruler in Kabul has managed to control all the national territory, except during brief interludes between civil wars or regional insurgencies.

Contrast this with Iraq, the West's other exercise in nation-building. Baghdad governments had always controlled all the national territory until the Kurdish revolt of 1991. And Iraq is blessed with oil wealth. Given these structural advantages, Iraq seems a safer bet than Afghanistan.

So the history of Afghanistan counsels realism. If the country can become a functioning state that does not export drugs or terrorists, that will be a resounding achievement. In the meantime, we should not be too hard on Mr Karzai or fuss about his choice of allies. Simply by trying to prove that Afghanistan is governable, he is defying the lesson of history.

Also See:
Afghan reports offer bleak assessments - BBC
Problems with troops, aid and time means Afghan war may not be forgotten so easily - Times online
Kabul diplomats' concerns grow regarding Karzai - Financial Times
Afghanistan may plunge into 'failed state,' experts warn - AFP

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