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Karzai's Fall

How did a man once hailed as the savior of Afghanistan become its scourge?

The president beamed, the guests applauded. As Hamid Karzai was sworn in for his second term in office amid a throng of 800 international and domestic dignitaries on November 18, one could almost forget that his presidency is under a cloud, his international support hanging by a thread, and his domestic standing lower than ever. It was a stark difference from his first inauguration, in December 2004. Then, the U.S. vice president and defense secretary were both in attendance; the capital throbbed with hope; and, for just a little while, it seemed that Karzai was riding a wave of national and international approbation that nothing could stop. How did a man once hailed as the savior of Afghanistan become its scourge?

Karzai was not an obvious choice to be leader of the new state in 2001. He had little standing within the country, having been out of Afghanistan since an unfortunate clash with the mujaheddin government in 1994. He had also dabbled with the Taliban, briefly considering becoming their envoy to the United Nations. But he was stylish and urbane, an ethnic Pashtun who spoke English, and strongly supported by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to the 2001 Bonn conference tasked with mapping out Afghanistan’s future. The Afghan-born Khalilzad, later to become ambassador to Kabul, enjoyed the full backing of the all-powerful U.S. Defense department, and his will was all but determinative in Bonn.

According to popular legend, Karzai, who had gone almost alone into Afghanistan to battle the Taliban in late 2001, was in Tirin Kot, capital of Uruzgan province, when he learned that the Bonn conference had appointed him as leader of the interim government. He had just narrowly escaped death by a stray U.S. bomb, and was bleeding from cuts to his face when BBC journalist Lyse Doucet called him with the news. As one disgruntled Kabul resident out it, “The international community plucked him from a mountaintop in Uruzgan and sat him on the throne.”

UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, who oversaw the Bonn conference, had a different view. According to him, Karzai was the ultimate compromise candidate. Karzai had spent much of 2001 trying to put together a coalition to battle the Taliban, and had amassed some political capital among the various groups competing for a share in Afghanistan’s future. He was acceptable both to the Northern Alliance and to the Pashtun tribal leaders, had been active in international circles under the mujaheddin government, and had managed to maintain good relations with all. “I think that Hamid Karzai was the obvious choice,” he told PBS’s ‘Frontline’ in an interview in May 2002. “And the reason is the following: He was the only man that was mentioned as a possible leader by many Afghans, including Pashtuns, the Northern Alliance, the Pakistanis and the Iranians.… Everybody had a list of a people, but the only name that you found on (every) list was Hamid Karzai.” 

Once installed--first as interim head, then, in 2004, as elected president--Karzai was the darling of the West, especially the United States. He had bi-weekly conference calls with the White house, took frequent trips to Washington, and was heaped with praise wherever he went. “Under President Karzai's leadership, the Afghan people have made remarkable changes over the past two-and-a-half years,” said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, welcoming Karzai to Washington in 2004. “Just a few years ago, Afghanistan was … in effect, a police state that banned basic freedoms, treated women in inhuman ways, served as a haven for Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. Today, Afghanistan is a member of the community of free nations.”

But the glow wore off soon enough. By 2005, Karzai was bogged down amid a growing insurgency, rampant corruption, and a disaffected population. The U.S.-led coalition forces had maintained a fairly light footprint in the southern provinces, allowing both the Taliban and poppy cultivation to flourish. By 2004, the amount of opium poppy produced in Afghanistan had reached a previously unheard-of 4,100 metric tons; by 2007, that number had nearly doubled. Drugs fueled both corruption and the insurgency, leaving the local population caught between a harsh Islamist regime and an ineffective, corrupt government.

What was more, Karzai’s status as a figurehead for the Americans stood him in good stead only as long as his constituency saw him as the conduit for money, reconstruction, and other goodies that were supposed to flow along the assistance pipeline. As a string of broken promises and failed projects began to depress Afghan expectations, Karzai went from America’s ally to America’s puppet in the eyes of his countrymen. Seven years after the fall of the Taliban, residents of the capital were still without electricity; only two major roads had been built, at disastrous expense; and construction of schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure was dangerously over budget and behind schedule.

At first, Karzai’s international supporters seemed intent on pretending that everything was fine while they concentrated their energies--and their resources--on the war in Iraq. But, responding to pressures at home,Karzai began taking steps to distance himself from his powerful ally, most often over the issue of civilian casualties. His protests were at first mild, limited to requests for the United States to be more careful after it dropped bombs on wedding parties and residential compounds. But those admonitions rose to a crescendo by 2006, when repeated air strikes killed numerous civilians, and millions of Afghans directed their ire at their president.

In December, 2006, Karzai addressed a gathering in his native Kandahar, actually shedding tears over the deaths of Afghan children in U.S. air strikes as he bemoaned the fact that he could not stop the foreign forces from killing Afghans. While the emotion may have been understandable, Karzai’s maudlin performance did not endear him to many of his countrymen, who felt that action, not complaints, was called for. Karzai grew more vociferous, holding angry press conferences to take NATO and the U.S. military to task. “We do not want any more military operations without coordinating them with the Afghan government,” he said in mid-2007. “From now onwards, they have to work the way we ask them to work in here.”

But as Karzai grew more heated, the West cooled considerably. The glaring defects in the Karzai administration were coming to light. Afghanistan may have been “The Good War,” but it was not a very successful peace. Corruption, inefficiency and lack of capacity combined to torpedo reconstruction efforts, while an increasingly desperate population turned to the Taliban to settle their grievances. The judiciary, for example, was so inept that in 2007 more than half of all family disputes and property cases were being adjudicated outside of the state legal system, according to numerous reports. Tribal and Taliban courts were seen to be fairer and a lot more expeditious at getting petitioners some satisfaction.

By 2007, the West could no longer ignore the growing insurgency and the corresponding failure of the international forces. By the Paris donor conference, in June 2008, the international community could not hide its impatience with Karzai’s inability to deliver real progress in security and development, and told him so. Even worse, he received less than half of the $50 billion in aid pledges that he said he needed. And things seemed unlikely to get better: Karzai’s major backer, George W. Bush, was on his way out, and the possible replacements were of little comfort. Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama openly disdained Karzai during a trip to Afghanistan in July 2008, meeting first with Gul Agha Sherzai, governor of Nangahar and a potential rival for Karzai in the 2009 Afghan elections.

Indeed, since Obama’s accession to the U.S. presidency, Karzai has had a difficult time of it. His growing criticism of Western military and reconstruction efforts has irked many, and when he came to Kabul this spring, special envoy Richard Holbrooke made no secret of the fact that the United States was looking for alternatives. No suitable replacement could be found, however, and Karzai’s re-election in August 2009 was never much in doubt. All that was needed was a reasonably successful election, to counteract the dire publicity the Afghan war was receiving in Paris, London, and Washington.

But even a willfully myopic international community could not ignore the blatant fraud perpetrated by Karzai supporters in the Afghan poll, nor could it stand by while the ineptly named “Independent” Election Commission tried to award a first-round victory to the incumbent. A two-month battle ensued, ending only when Senator John Kerry arrived in Kabul to softly bully and cajole the Afghan president into accepting a runoff. The second election was Karzai’s only hope of reclaiming legitimacy, but he was denied even this when his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out, citing Karzai’s refusal to take any measures to avoid a repeat of the first-round vote-rigging.

Karzai has played a canny game with the West, all the same. Despite the tough talk, the United States is not about to abandon Afghanistan, Obama’s three-month long delay in announcing his decision on troop increases notwithstanding. “Karzai knows very well that the United States is not going to pull out its troops,” said Afghan political analyst Waheed Mojda. “He does not have to comply with their demands; there is nothing they can do. They are in Afghanistan for their own strategic interests, not for him.”

Those strategic interests are coming under increasing scrutiny, but the administration, and numerous commentators, are bending over backwards to make the case for the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. They conflate the Taliban with Al Qaeda and argue confidently that a loss in Afghanistan could trigger a regional collapse. Those who remember Vietnam and the Cold War experience a shudder of recognition. “It’s called ‘the domino theory,’” said one expert on Pakistan, speaking privately.

So the dance between Karzai and his international backers continues. In his inauguration speech Karzai paid lip service to the West’s stated priority--corruption--although he stopped well short of admitting that the problem was as widespread as the United States insists it is. (According to the most recent Transparency International Index, the Afghan government ranks second on earth in perceived corruption by its population, trailing only Somalia.) Karzai called for reconciliation with “all dissatisfied compatriots”--his shorthand for the Taliban--and pledged that within five years Afghans would take the lead in all military operations.

However, the Afghan president understands only too well that his continued survival in office still depends, financially and militarily, on the West. “[Karzai] cannot maintain his government for more than a few days without American support,” said Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former finance minister and failed presidential candidate. The United States cannot abandon Karzai, and he cannot afford to kick them out. The stalemate is thus likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Jean MacKenzie is the director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Afghanistan and reports for GlobalPost News.

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