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Follow the (Iraqi) Leader

How Hamid Karzai can save himself.

Imagine a national leader dependent on American support, but who knows that the U.S. Ambassador has threatened that it will be withdrawn; who has heard Senators, and the French foreign minister, call for his removal; and who is referred to throughout the Western press as “weak and unreliable.”

That man is not Hamid Karzai, who visits Washington this week. It was Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq, three years ago. Yet Maliki has since transformed himself from reputed weakling to overbearing strong-man, even while being dependent on U.S. support. So: can Karzai, buffeted by scandal and criticism, somehow manage to do the same?

For three years I served as a diplomat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and saw both men up close. They are different—in some ways, polar opposites. Yet there are important similarities between their respective situations—important, because what Maliki has accomplished in Iraq suggests a strategy that could help redeem both Karzai and Afghanistan.

As the lone Arabic-speaking foreigner for six months in the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office in 2005, I learned how the verbose rhetoric of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, so alien to me, was comforting to his supporters: it showed he was an intellectual, a devout Muslim, almost a religious preacher­—and therefore dependable. Likewise, I found that his successor Maliki’s taciturnity and bluntness, his unfamiliarity with English and his inability to be diplomatic, conveyed sincerity. It was less effective with his opponents in Iraq, and his critics abroad; but what has been achieved since then in Iraq makes it the envy of Afghans.

Iraq is still violent and unstable, and nobody knows what will happen when (and if) the last American soldier leaves. Nor is Maliki’s record unblemished: he is accused of abuses, and undesirable alliances. He may or may not survive as Iraq’s prime minister. His legacy, however, surpasses Karzai’s. Iraqi casualties are now less than a tenth of their 2007 peak, while Coalition casualties have decreased over 95 percent. Maliki scored a major victory in the 2009 municipal elections in Iraq, and in the most recent parliamentary election, he individually received over 600,000 votes from his constituency in Baghdad—by far the highest individual vote of any single politician in the last election.

Can Karzai do the same? Pessimists point to Maliki’s three clear, inimitable advantages. First: Iraq’s oil reserves, which are worth at least $10 trillion, mean the country can survive without outside help. Afghanistan has some mineral wealth, and agricultural potential, but not enough to forego foreign assistance. That provides Maliki with leverage that Karzai doesn’t have.

Second, Maliki had a peace dividend. After he took office, the U.S. increased its troop levels and the insurgents, as it is said, became exhausted. By contrast Coalition casualties in Afghanistan have more than doubled since 2006, and now far exceed, on a yearly basis, those in Iraq. The Afghan Government wholly relies on Coalition operations to fend off Taliban gains in its contested southern provinces.

Third, Maliki could take credit for an American-led military campaign because his constituents, Shia Arab Iraqis, were its beneficiaries. By contrast, Karzai has been unwilling to take credit for Coalition operations because his core supporters, the ethnic Pashtuns, have suffered the most from these operations. His hostility to the U.S. has mounted in tandem with the rise in civilian casualties, which have hit deeply at his support base.

There is one last, very important advantage that Maliki has over Karzai—and that is the fact that he was chosen by Iraqis, and not by foreigners. He took power as the candidate of the Da’wa party: it was a smoky backroom process, but run by Iraqi politicians who proved better judges than Western diplomats and journalists. The man that Da’wa chose lacked precisely those qualities that Westerners prized in Karzai: he was neither photogenic, nor English-speaking, nor in any sense the epitome of chic. But all that has been to his advantage. Few people in wartime want their leader to be chic.

Maliki’s taciturnity and directness are reassuring indications (familiar especially to Iraqis of a tribal background, like Maliki himself) that he means what he says. So is his imperturbability. Maliki stood stock still when mortars exploded nearby at a March 2007 press conference with Ban Ki-Moon and when shoes were thrown at President Bush in December 2008. That is not so easy to do: Afghanistan’s government was seen on camera ducking and running away from the (admittedly more serious) threat of gunfire at the April 2008 Victory Day celebrations.

Most of all, Maliki displays a strong sense of Iraqi identity. He is the first post-Saddam ruler of Iraq who had never lived in the West. His friends say he never enjoyed living elsewhere. He quit Iran for Syria (they say) because he felt so keenly its differences from the rural Iraqi culture in which he had been brought up. He still likes to relax in traditional Iraqi dress in his native village, while appearing conspicuously ill at ease in his foreign visits, especially to Washington. His pride in his Iraqi birthright undoubtedly fed his desire to achieve some independence from America. It has also helped to immunize him against Western criticism. And it gives him a certain quality, identified by Said Amir Arjomand when he examined why the present Iranian regime will be harder to remove than the Shah: ”they have nowhere to go outside of Iran.”

By contrast, Karzai has had a deeply emotional relationship with the West, colored first by acclaim, and now by feelings of betrayal. His speeches use imagery that conveys dependency and frustration. Take for example his remark in 2008 that ”if we had a chelak, we could throw it up into the sky” to stop American bombing raids on Afghan villages. Small boys throw chelaks, which are rocks attached to strings that are used to bring down kites. So Karzai in this image identified himself as a vulnerable Afghan boy, throwing a stone at bomber jets in the sky. It conveys graphically a picture of impotent rage—an image that damages both himself and his allies.

So Karzai currently lacks many of the attributes, and some of circumstances, that have allowed Maliki to succeed. Yet there are things that Karzai can do, and that the United States can do for him, that could allow him to follow Maliki’s example. For the United States, these come down to putting Karzai and Afghans in control of their own future. That is what allowed Maliki to succeed in Iraq.

Karzai himself can do one thing right away. He has complained that he lacks the power to get things done, because so many Ministers and officials are not loyal to the government, but to factional interests. Maliki had the same problem in Iraq in 2006, where independent-minded officials would often ignore directives from the center. So he used his political party, the Da’wa, to help him exercise more authority, drawing from it a core of trusted advisers and enforcers. Karzai could learn from this: he could set up his own political party. Even if he distrusts advice on this from the West, he can hardly deny the success of his western near-neighbor. A political party could represent him in parliament, provide a network of supporters across government’s ethnic divides, and develop a distinctive political identity for him that would transcend his image as a foreign-backed leader.

But the main thing Karzai has to do is to establish himself as a wartime leader, and not simply as an instrument of American designs. And to do that he needs the cooperation of the United States. Maliki was able to assert his authority partly as the result of a far-sighted American policy of letting Iraqis take or share the credit for successes against the insurgency. Soon after he took office, U.S. General George Casey put Maliki on the stage with him to take joint credit with the United States for the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Most recently, the U.S. let the Iraq government take credit for killing al-Qaeda terrorists, even though it was done with American help.

But Maliki also asserted himself. When he launched operation “Charge of the Knights” in 2008 without American consent and participation, and later that year demanded a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, he demonstrated that at some level the counter-insurgency campaign really was Iraqi-led. When he opposed American proposals, he gave the impression that he was trumping the U.S. in military decision-making. If he ever gave way, he never admitted it.

By contrast, Karzai has not established even a bare appearance of leading the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. That’s not entirely his fault. Since at least the first military surge in 2004-6, the West has not made the concerted, consistent effort that would be needed to put the Afghan leadership center-stage in the fight against the Taliban. Nobody pretended that the idea of having a UN super-envoy in 2007 was an Afghan proposal, or that it was designed to empower Afghan leaders. General McChrystal’s glamour has not rubbed off on any Afghan general; everyone knows that his review of the Afghan war was his own, and nobody spoke of it as if it were President Karzai’s initiative. On the contrary, the talk in Kabul is of how the United States can work around Karzai and build independent partnerships with local leaders. Even the NATO road-map for transition to Afghan control has only been “reviewed” by the Afghan leadership. Maliki forced the pace of his road-map, and used it for huge PR advantage.

To be sure, Karzai has not made it easy. When offered similar opportunities as Maliki to take charge of the fight with the Taliban, he has ducked them. Accompanying General McChrystal to Kandahar on April 4, he stressed his veto over the proposed Kandahar operation, rather than present himself as its author. This reluctance is (among other things) a political judgment. Karzai himself believes that the U.S. wants to weaken him and perhaps remove him. He fears its alliance with Pakistan. He also suspects that the United States will not be in Afghanistan for long to support him. And he sometimes seems himself to doubt that the Coalition can defeat the Taliban. Consequently he has attempted to make friends with regional allies like Iran, and to stay out of the fight with the Taliban as much as possible.

American reluctance to thrust Karzai forward has weakened his leadership. And Karzai’s complaints about American initiative have not established his independence, but his marginality. This is the wrong direction for the Coalition and for him. When the U.S. reduces its presence in Afghanistan, it will want a strong and friendly partner in Kabul in the fight against Al-Qaeda, not an embittered and weakened one. And without American military support, Karzai will be unable to quell the Taliban insurgency.

Maliki’s example shows how a successful counter-insurgency needs not just an increase in foreign troops, or a huge supply of funds. It needs a national leader willing to take charge. In Afghanistan that must be its president; and that president, from now until at least 2014, is Hamid Karzai. Either now, or in some years’ time, he will have to take charge of the military campaign in Afghanistan. Greatness, in short, must be thrust upon him. Here’s how.

Any continued American and Coalition presence after mid-2011 (sustainable, long-term, and ideally taking a back seat in the counter-insurgency) should be contingent on a public request from President Karzai. Ideally it should be a multi-year signed agreement. That will remind Afghans that it is at their government’s request that American forces operate in their country. It will also show them that the U.S. commitment is not going to end in 2011. Further, the Afghan President or his ministers or generals must announce military strategy and operations. International figures should at most share the platform. If the Afghans are unwilling to be the ones to announce these operations, then they should not happen.

At a stroke this would calm Karzai’s fears that the U.S. is trying to bypass him. It would also force him to establish his own strategy for meeting the challenge from the Taliban and al Qaeda. Such a strategy would have the advantage of being Afghan-owned and more lasting than anything that is imposed by a temporary foreign presence.

Could such a strategy work? Look, ironically, at the example of former Soviet-backed President Najibullah. His ill-fated five-year rule might seem a perverse example to follow. Yet what was remarkable about Najibullah (whose pictures are still sometimes displayed in Kabul) was that he survived for three years after Soviet forces withdrew. He fought off, and bought off, enemies who were getting considerable support from Pakistan and the West. He was even able to turn the tables on them by presenting himself, rather than them, as the true Afghan nationalist—something that the withdrawal of foreign forces allowed him to do.

Najibullah still got plenty of money and weapons from the Soviets. His example does not prove that an Afghan leader can survive long without outside help (and it has been more than a century since any of them did). It does suggest, though, that a leader can thrive there best when he can assert his independence as an Afghan leader.

A version of this strategy has worked so far in Iraq. The most pessimistic view is that it can’t work in Afghanistan because Karzai, unlike Maliki, is temperamentally unsuited to be a wartime leader. But similar doubts were raised about Maliki when he first took office. The United States took a chance on him; it granted him the power he needed to establish his own authority. The United States needs to take the same kind of chance with Karzai.

Gerard Russell is an Afghan-Pakistan Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. He was a British and United Nations diplomat for 14 years, working in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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