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Karzai’s Popularity Slips in Afghanistan


Afghan Presisent Hamid Karzai (U.S. Dept. of Defense)

On Friday, President George W. Bush will host his most stalwart ally in the seven-year U.S. war in Afghanistan: Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The relationship between the two men is notably warm — “We’re proud of you, proud of the work you’re doing,” Bush told Karzai during their last meeting in Washington — something understandable, given that Washington ensured Karzai’s rise from an obscure lieutenant of the deceased anti-Taliban warrior, Ahmed Shah Massoud, to president of Afghanistan.

But for the first time in Karzai’s meteoric ascent — and ahead of national elections scheduled for next year — Afghans are beginning to express disillusionment with the president. Corruption, instability and tough economic times are starting to turn even Karzai’s fellow Pashtuns against him. While the anti-Karzai antipathy is building, some experts wonder if Washington has blundered into an Afghanistan policy without a Plan B.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

“The Bush administration has taken to having a Maliki-Musharraf-Karzai complex,” said Nathaniel Fick, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq who is now with the Center for a New American Security. He was referring to Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki and the deposed Pakistani dictator, Pervez Musharraf. “It’s slow to criticize its anointed allies,” Fick explained.

Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, expanded on this theme. “There is a lot of sentiment against President Karzai among people of all ethnic groups,” Rubin said, “I imagine, given the situation in Afghanistan, there would be resentment against anyone who was president.”

A recent two-week trip through eastern Afghanistan, an overwhelmingly Pashtun area, revealed a populace that seemed deeply unhappy with the levels of corruption in the Karzai government. While many people interviewed seemed unconcerned about whether Karzai is personally corrupt — though his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is suspected of being a major drug dealer — they were worried that Karzai is unprepared to lead Afghans out of their current security and economic crises.

“Karzai is a good guy,” Zareen, an elderly farmer in southwestern Paktia province, interviewed about 10 days ago, said through a translator. “We want [aid] money from foreign countries [that Karzai secures]. But there is corruption in the government, so the money is not distributed.”

Zareen’s brother dismissed the local council, known as a shura, as a band of ineffective thieves. “All of them are people of the area,” he said through translation, referring to the shura’s members, “and they just promise, they don’t implement. When the government says it will help, it just steals stuff. There are steps of corruption: Karzai, then senior people, then the governor, then the [district commissioner] — they all steal. There is nothing left for the people.”

An assessment of neighboring Paktika Province, prepared in 2007 by a Human Terrain Team — a group of anthropologists and political scientists working with the U.S. military — revealed similar disillusionment. “People tired of the Taliban because they beat them,” a tribal area in the district of Kushamond told the team. “Now, if this government [also] beats them, what should the people do?”

In the province, the team wrote, “Elders expressed frustration at their inability to engage with the [Karzai government] and [U.S. military] elements responsible for house searches and the death of a mentally-disabled teenager.”

There isn’t much polling done in Afghanistan, but much of what exists is conducted by Craig Charney’s New York-based firm. While Charney said he could not share his results with The Washington Independent, he said his latest poll, conducted last November, found substantial but eroding support for Karzai.

“His favorabilities were in the 70s or 80s, and his positives for his job approval was 55 or 60 [percent],” Charney said in a telephone interview, “But it was down from two years before — which was honeymoon time.” Karzai, he continued, “could have eroded some [in the polls], but still be in a strong position.”

Rubin, of New York University, who is the author of “The Fragmentation of Afghanistan,” said that Karzai’s rising unpopularity is related to his inefficacy as a leader — something hard-wired into post-Taliban Afghanistan. “Only one person has any real power,” Rubin explained. “It’s basically a monarchical constitution with an elected leader. It took the 1964 constitution and made the head of state elected instead of a king with a prime minister.”

The problem is that while one person essentially governs the country, his power is, in essence, limited by Afghanistan’s heavy reliance on Washington. “Hamid Karzai does not run [the Afghan army],” Rubin continued. “It’s run by the Dept. of Defense… In Afghanistan, the U.S. runs most of the [aid and development] programs outside the government, and Hamid Karzai has nothing to do with them. That’s why he feels so ineffectual. He doesn’t feel empowered.”

Several Afghans interviewed by The Washington Independent said they would not vote for Karzai in next year’s election, considering him too weak to govern. One, a doctor in the eastern border province of Khost, said he would sooner leave Afghanistan than see Karzai re-elected, fearing a likely deterioration in security.

Fick heard many similar comments during an trip to Afghanistan in August, but said Washington is at a disadvantage because this is no plausible alternative to Karzai. “We met with half a dozen Cabinet officials, a dozen members of Parliament — and everyone put forward his own name as a candidate” for president, Fick said. “But in terms of who actually has a national constituency, it’s sort of hard to say.”

Charney agreed. “The bottom line is that Karzai — despite all his problems and weaknesses — is still the only national figure Afghanistan has got,” he said.

Be that as it may, Fick feared that U.S. policy has become too reliant on a single figure — and could be thrown into turmoil if Karzai loses the next election. Avoiding such personalization of policy is easier said than done, however.

“It [requires] a return to interest-based realism, in a way,” Fick said, “to not meet with foreign leaders and say, ‘I looked into his eyes and got a sense of his soul.’” Fick was referring to what Bush famously said on his first meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who invaded Georgia despite vociferous U.S. objections this summer.

If Washington is to turn away from being beholden to whomever wins the 2009 Afghan election, Rubin said, Afghanistan’s relationship with the international community will have to change — and changed in way that, somewhat paradoxically, strengthens the presidency. “If President Karzai makes a decision,” Rubin said, “in an hour some [NATO] ambassador is gonna come in and argue with him. He doesn’t control his troops, and doesn’t control the money. That’s a situation that breeds corruption.”

Rubin emphasized this point. “We have to have a strategy focused on building the Afghan government,” he said, “and not on accomplishing short-term goals.”

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