Will Obama dump Karzai?

February 16, 2009

The day before U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke began a visit to Afghanistan last week, the Taliban demonstrated its growing strength by killing 26 people in a simultaneous attack on three government ministries in a heavily fortified area of the capital of Kabul.

The attack is just one of several recent signs that the U.S. and its handpicked president, Hamid Karzai, are losing ground against a rising insurgency. Taliban allies in Pakistan succeeded on February 3 in demolishing a bridge on a road that has been crucial for re-supplying U.S./NATO occupation forces through the Khyber Pass.

On the same day, President Kurmanbek Bakiev of Kyrgyzstan--one of Afghanistan's northern neighbors--announced plans to annul the agreement that has allowed U.S. forces to operate out of the airport at the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek since shortly after the September 11 attacks.

Holbrooke's trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan is part of a "policy review" by the new administration of President Barack Obama, aimed at constructing a new regional strategy to deal with setbacks like these. During the presidential campaign, Obama's Afghan strategy seemed to be to step up the military fight with more than 20,000 additional troops, while extending the authority of the Karzai government into the countryside.

The fight is still part of the plan. But recently, the new administration has signaled that it views Karzai himself as a liability. National intelligence chief Dennis Blair used his written testimony to Congress on February 11 to blame Karzai's government for losing the loyalty of ordinary Afghans.

The objective of any new strategy would be to salvage a piece of a shrinking U.S. foothold in this key strategic region, which borders Russian, China and Iran--and contains some of the world's largest untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. Anand Gopal, the Kabul correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, talked to David Whitehouse about the new situation in Afghanistan.

YOU WERE out of Afghanistan for a few weeks over New Years. What was new by the time you got back?

THE BIGGEST change from my last visit is the extent to which relations have deteriorated between Afghanistan President Karzai and the U.S. When I arrived in January, the capital was rife with rumors about a split between Karzai and the Obama administration. It looks like Karzai is increasingly becoming the fall guy for Western failures here.

Washington originally promoted and supported Karzai, despite his many flaws, an arrangement that worked well for years. Karzai was charismatic and knew how to talk to the West. But at the same time, his standing plummeted on the Afghan street: The government was mired in inefficiency and corruption.

Karzai blames the West for the corruption, and he's right: massive amounts of aid dollars have disappeared into a black hole, and the U.S. doles out millions in contracts to favored companies, a process that has no oversight or accountability. The Afghan government is just as corrupt, however, which has led to widespread resentment here.

Barack Obama meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai while on a visit to Afghanistan
Barack Obama meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai while on a visit to Afghanistan

To bolster his sagging support, Karzai started rallying Afghans around an emotive issue--civilian casualties. He has spoken out repeatedly against Western bombing raids that have killed large numbers of civilians.

This, more than anything, is what has upset the U.S. and is getting people in Washington to think that it might be time to back a new horse. Vice President Joe Biden landed in Kabul a few weeks ago and privately berated Karzai, demanding that the Afghan president stop publicly criticizing American military operations.

THE GOVERNMENT has officially postponed elections from May 22 to August 20. Why?

TO CONDUCT an election, a government needs to actually be in control of territory. The Afghan south is a patchwork of various powers--the Afghan government (or international forces) control various towns, but hold little sway in the rural areas.

In these areas, either the Taliban or local militias run the show. Election workers can't actually visit many of these places, and the people who live in these areas can't easily travel to the urban centers to vote, since the Taliban has pledged to kill anyone participating in the election.

Under these conditions, an election can't be held. The danger is that Pashtuns [an ethnic group comprising about 40 percent of Afghans] won't be able or willing to vote, which means that there's a chance they may not consider whoever is elected to be legitimate. This would be a huge rallying point for the Taliban, as it was for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

It's possible that fraud could circumvent this, by using phantom voters and the like. There's evidence that this is occurring during the voter registration process and could continue during the election itself.

THE OPPOSITION United Front has said that it won't recognize the Karzai government after May 22. Isn't this the same group as the Northern Alliance, which helped the U.S. overthrow the Taliban? How did they become the opposition?

THE UNITED Front--which is essentially the Northern Alliance militias under a political guise--has been increasingly distancing itself from President Karzai as his popularity plummets. This is all political gamesmanship. The United Front is opposed to Karzai, but they haven't shown any evidence that they are opposed to the political system that Karzai has come to represent to Afghans--corrupt, exploitative and negligent.

The United Front has little to offer people except a change in ethnicity (they are comprised of Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, while Karzai and those around him are Pashtuns). This factor may be able to bring in some support from those ethnic groups, but it will also alienate the largest group, the Pashtuns.

Overall, the United Front lacks broad or deep support in the country as most people remember their roles when they were the Northern Alliance--raping, looting and killing.

WHICH POLITICAL forces are the U.S. supporting? Why?

THERE ARE a few likely presidential contenders: Ashraf Ghani, a "technocrat," the former finance minister before he quit in protest of the ineffectiveness of the government; Ali Ahmad Jalali, the former interior minister and journalist, who now teaches at the Naval Defense University in the States; Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-American former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN; Gul Agha Sherzai, the warlord governor of Nangrahar province; and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister and a member of the Northern Alliance.

It's unlikely that any of these candidates can command the national following needed to win an election. Abdullah Abdullah would seem to be disqualified immediately as he is a Tajik and can't win the Pashtun vote, which is the sine qua non for any serious contender. Khalilzad might be seen as a stooge of the U.S., which won't go over well in most of the country. Ghani and Jalali have spent much time recently in the U.S. and may lack a strong base in Afghanistan.

This leaves Sherzai--the only politician other than Karzai who Obama met when he visited here some months ago. Sherzai hails from a powerful Pashtun tribe and commands a significant following in the Kandahar and Jalalabad areas. He was the former governor of Kandahar and noted for widespread human rights abuses and corruption.

A lifelong mujahadeen [religious-inspired fighters who the U.S. backed against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s], he lacks the polish of some of the other candidates. For instance, he recently boasted that if elected, he would spend one month in every province, which means he would be absent from Kabul for nearly three years!

One option that is being discussed is the creation of a "dream team," where Ghani, Jalali, Abdullah Abdullah and Sherzai would rule together, albeit with Sherzai as the official president and public face, but the former three as the brains behind the operation.

Whoever eventually gets support, the important thing is to realize what the U.S. is looking for--a Pashtun with a commitment to tackle corruption, and who accepts U.S. military and political decisions without complaint.

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