Thursday, September 30, 2010

Joshua Foust: In Defense of Hamid Karzai

From Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel blog:
It’s not hard to imagine ousting Karzai; it’s much harder to conceive of anyone better at the moment. Gul Agha Sherzai, the current governor of Nangarhar and former governor of Kandahar; Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek militia commander from the North; and Ismail Khan, the former potentate of Herat, all command constituencies, though none with the same degree of multi-ethnic support as Karzai. Abdullah Abdullah, who contested the election last year, also has many supporters, though again, not as many as Karzai.

But even if one of these men were to unseat the Afghan president, there’s no guarantee that they would be any better. In fact, they could be worse. Imagine if Ismail Khan were president – could he exercise any real control outside of Herat? Similarly, Gul Agha Sherzai, the prominent government of Nangarhar, was hyped last year as a presidential contender… but if Karzai’s relationship to the narcotics industry is a problem, Sherzai is worse (he’s also much more violent, and allegedly has a large harem of “dancing boys” at his mansion -- surely not the man the U.S. would want in Kabul). Additionally, Sherzai’s tenure of Kandahar was so bad the Taliban were welcomed in 1994 as liberators from his violent, capricious style of rule. Western pundits also fawned over Dostum and Ashraf Ghani -- but neither has been able to secure more than scattered, occasional support from Afghan voters. Each one of these men face a critical shortcoming: they represent their communities, but not Afghanistan. Only Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah enjoyed broad support in the last election.

Complaints about Karzai are focused too much on the man and not enough on the presidency. Good man or no, having an office as poorly situated as the Afghan presidency makes any officeholder destined for failure. Were another president to step into the post, he would be faced by the same pressures -- forced to manage the same perilous balancing acts. So maybe it’s less a question about Karzai than about U.S. expectations. If those can’t be met, Washington has a much bigger problem on its hands.