Guest Comment: Afghanistan Can’t be Fixed Just by Changing its President

An experienced observer writes with regard to rumors that President Obama may cease supporting Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

“I read with interest the story about Afghanistan in today’s Independent by Starkey and Sengupta, to which you provided a link. My suspicion is that it certainly captures the politics of the hour. But it also worries me a great deal. I was in Afghanistan in December, and came away with concerns rather different from those being currently aired. . .

It seems to me that yet again, the wider world is at risk of staking too much on individuals. We’ve seen that strategy unravel with the decline and fall of Musharraf, the assassination of Benazir, and sundry similar events elsewhere. (I wonder sometimes whether this is a déformation professionelle of US officials!)
Cont’d (click below or on “comments”)

In Afghanistan, I see no reason to expect that merely changing the president will either address the structural flaws in Afghanistan’s institutional framework, or do much to inspire the ordinary population. If one credits the Asia Foundation’s survey work in Afghanistan, the big drop in optimism in Afghanistan came between 2004 and 2006, and was grounded in economic concerns. The 2008 survey of Afghan opinion found that in the most turbulent parts of Afghanistan, the insurgency-ridden southeast and southwest, only 8 per cent of respondents identified corruption and weak government as the biggest problem facing Afghanistan; insecurity, cited by 33 per cent of respondents, carried much more weight.

Insecurity in these regions is intimately related to the presence of sanctuaries in Pakistan, to which Bush et al culpably turned a blind eye for years while assuring Karzai that they knew how to handle Pakistan! (There are problems of governance and corruption in the north of Afghanistan, but by and large the further one gets from the Durand Line, the better the security environment.)

For all the talk of corruption, there is very little serious analysis of its roots. (The only corrupt behaviour I actually saw in Afghanistan was an American bribing a security policeman at Kabul airport to allow his luggage into the terminal without going through the X-ray machine!) At one level, of course, the mere perception of extensive corruption is itself a political reality. But if it is to be seriously addressed, we will need a much more nuanced exploration of the relations between statebuilding, poverty, inequality, and the breakdown of trust than any US or European officials seem to have on offer. I suspect that the gravy train created by Western donors with targets to meet has contributed far more to the spread of corruption than has moral failure on the part of the Afghans.

One view I picked up in Kabul is a suspicion held by Afghans and non-Afghans alike that the British think that they are back in the 19th century, in a Great Game configuration (for example, the British Ambassador’s leaked statement that what Afghanistan needs is an ‘acceptable dictator’). There may be something to this suspicion, but I have a rather cruder view: that in the aftermath of the July 2005 bombings, the British feel dependent on Pakistan for policing cooperation to address the perceived threat from radicalised youth of South Asian origin living in the Midlands, and that blaming the Afghans for the problems of Afghanistan is a way of distracting attention from their unwillingness to address the sanctuaries issue.

None of this is to deny that Karzai has some notable weaknesses. He has made some poor choices of associates (for example, Afghanistan might just as well not have a Foreign Minister), and he is not a dynamic policy leader. That may well lead Afghan voters to the view that he should be replaced. But I see real dangers in Western governments involving themselves in this process. Karzai may still end up winning an election; more seriously, overt foreign involvement may simply add to anti-foreigner feelings; and most seriously, even if there is a change of leader, nothing much may change on the ground. It is easy to idealise opposition figures whose portfolios of skills remain untested.”

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