The Karzai Conundrum

By Michael Fumento

Forbes Online, April 4, 2010
Copyright 2010 Independent Journalism Project

  Print this  Print this    Make text larger    Make text smaller

“If I come under foreign pressure, I might join the Taliban,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai allegedly told several members of his nation’s parliament Monday. The U.S. reaction should be: “Don’t let a camel bite you on the butt on the way out.”

Karzai is displeased because we’re displeased with him. But it’s not a standoff. We have excellent reasons. Even by Afghan standards he’s crooked. Worse, he’s become arrogant—“King Karzai” in his own mind. If we are to win the war he either needs to undergo a character transformation on the order of Ebenezer Scrooge’s, or we need him gone.

Unless you pour massive numbers of troops into a counterinsurgency campaign as well as use Nazi-level brutality, you need to be supporting an acceptably good government—by national standards. That was a big part of our problem in Vietnam. But Karzai is corrupt. We know it; he knows it; most importantly the Afghans know it. Not that anybody thinks of himself as corrupt and announces his latest scheme with a “Bwa-ha-ha!” (Excepting, of course, Dogbert.)

Wali Karzai is reputed to control large swaths of the heroin trade in the southern part of the country.

Karzai is taking advantage of his position for self-aggrandizement and helping out lots of buddies. That includes his brother, Wali, who’s the top provincial official in the nation’s most critical province, Kandahar.

Kandahar is Afghanistan’s "center of gravity" and the key to reversing the Taliban’s momentum, points out Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. But "We will be unable to succeed in Kandahar if we cannot eliminate a vast majority of corruption there and set up a legitimate governance structure," he said in late March. "We can succeed militarily, but it’s not going to work. That’s just a fact."

Yet that’s merely one aspect of the Karzai problem. In last August’s presidential election Karzai claimed to have received 55% of the votes, making him the winner. But the voting was “marred by allegations of ballot-stuffing, phantom polling stations and turnout at some polls that exceeded 100% of registered voters,” according to the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). (And no, there’s no city of Chicago in Afghanistan.)

So two months later he bowed to demands for a second round run-off vote. But his opponent withdrew from the race, saying it would be at least as fraudulent as the last. So Karzai remained president by default.

Since then Karzai has been in more fights with his parliament than England’s Charles I was with his. He submits cabinet nominees and most are rejected. As one parliament member explained, they had been picked largely based on "ethnicity or bribery or money." Still, for the most part, Karzai has gotten his way.

Now the Afghan president is accusing the allies of wanting to treat him as a “puppet.” Curious words from a man who in 2008 told CNN, "If I am called a ’puppet’ because we are grateful to America, then let that be my nickname."

So, he says, if we don’t back off publicly, pressuring him to do more to end graft, cronyism and electoral fraud, he may take up a whip and start beating women who let their ankles show. And he may not be bluffing.

When the Taliban seized power in the mid-1990s Karzai supported them allegedly as a force to end corruption and violence in a war-torn post-Communist country. But when the U.S. sent cruise missiles to kill Osama bin Laden in 1998, Karzai told The Washington Post that "there were many wonderful people in the Taliban." Karzai did fight the Taliban—during one month in 2001 when the U.S. gave him a good hard kick in the pants.

But Afghans are getting fed up. An ABC/BBC/ARD TV Germany poll last year showed that 85% of respondents called official corruption "a problem" and 63% "a big problem"—the latter up from 45% the previous year. Further, half said corruption had increased in the past year. Their positive rating of local conditions has gone from 83% to 62%. And by no mean coincidence, the same poll shows Karzai’s approval ratings dropping from 83% to 52%.

In fairness, their view of the United States has also plummeted, but that’s intrinsically tied to the performance of the Afghan government, of which to a great extent we’re held responsible.

While I was embedded with the Army in Afghanistan in 2007, I talked with Afghans and found them charming and gracious. (We didn’t discuss their attitudes towards women.) But they also have very strong feelings about justice. And as their history shows, they aren’t a bunch of sheep. Much like Americans, they are very quick to pick up their rifles if they feel they are being trod upon.

Importantly, while Afghans still hate the Taliban with a passion, more and more you hear them saying that while they may have been downright evil, they were evil in a relatively fair manner. Psychologically, that can be very important. Misery loves company; it doesn’t love seeing those with special connections getting special favors.

President Karzai, we know where you live.

It’s also important to realize that Karzai is hardly the "George Washington of his country." Yes, he played a vital role in the fight against the Soviets and their puppet Communist government, but he did so completely from the safety of Pakistan. (Remember, even Charlie Wilson entered that country!) Obviously the Afghans, who revere their warriors (and interestingly, as I found, even refer to dead enemies as “martyrs,”) know this, and it hurts Karzai’s reputation.

And now Afghans also know that he’s threatened to join the Taliban. It may well have been just posturing, but don’t expect them to see it that way. Expect their view of him to plummet even more.

Karzai can be deposed—I’ll leave the details to others. There are plenty of people who’d like the job, some of whom would be far worse than Karzai but others who aren’t arrogant and might even be relatively honest.

If Karzai wants to go over to the Taliban, he’s invited to do so. Just so long as he realizes we’ve got a Hellfire missile on a Predator with his name on it.