Thursday, August 13, 2009

And It's One, Two, Three, What Are We Fightin' For?

Next week's general election will reveal just how much good we've done in Afghanistan since 2001. I've been pretty negative about this poll but how about a second opinion? Here's how the Brookings Institute sees the situation:

...As governance continued to deteriorate and Karzai’s legitimacy based on the inadequate performance of his government continued to slip, Karzai progressively sought to cloak himself with other forms of legitimacy, instead of finding means to improve governance. Indeed, these other sources of legitimacy frequently clashed with efforts to improve governance. At first, Karzai appointed very conservative ulema in Kabul to claim religious legitimacy. Then he embraced nationalism – decrying both Pakistan’s machinations in Afghanistan and civilian casualties caused by NATO and even questioning NATO’s presence in Afghanistan at times. Most lately, Karzai has latched onto a renewed cleavage in Afghanistan between the old mujahideen commanders (with a checkered warlord history complicating their anti-Soviet heroism) and ex-Communist Afghan commanders who it turned out had better skills at governance in the post-Taliban era than many of the ex-mujahideen and tribal leaders. The high praise lavished by the international community on General Mohammad Gulab Mangal for his performance as governor of Helmand has become an emblematic thorn in the side of many of the former mujahideen commanders eased out of official power at the instigation of the international community for their poor governance, human rights abuses, and criminality.

Yet it was precisely these problematic power brokers to whom Hamid Karzai reached out in the 2009 pre-election bargaining process. In return for supporting his reelection, they were promised appointments in his cabinet, governorships, and other positions of power. The newly co-opted power brokers include Fahim who is running as one of Karzai’s vice president, Dostum, Akhundzaza, Jan Mohammand, Matullah Khan, Gul Agha Sherzai, and Mohammad Mohaqiq. Karzai’s co-optation of them assured that they would not run against him (notably Sherzai) and deliver important tribal and ethnic vote (Mohaqiq the Hazara; Mohammad, Khan, and Sherzai the Barakzai; Dostum the Uzbek).

If Karzai wins the presidential elections (whether in one or two rounds), it is difficult to see how the pre-election bargains will allow him to come back to the presidential Arg Palace with a clean slate and strong commitment and capacity for good governance. At the same time, the marked escalation of tensions between Karzai and the international community during the pre-election period (such as Karzai’s attacks on NATO for civilian casualties and his resentment at the U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry appearing at a joint press conference with his two rivals, Abdullah and Ghani) will make the relations between the Afghan national government centralized in the president and the international community difficult. At a time when close cooperation and coordination is necessary for the increased effectiveness of the counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts, such a tense relationship will be a major impediment. Karzai may well have a tendency to perceive appropriate suggestions of how to improve governance as driven by a desire to undercut him.

But even if Karzai does not win the elections, improved governance in Afghanistan will not automatically follow. Although of mixed origin – part Tajik, part Pashtun – Abdullah Abdullah, even if elected legitimately, will struggle to persuade the Pashtuns that he genuinely represents their interests also and does not favor the northern Tajiks. While an effective non-Pashtun at the helm of the country could be a great force toward consolidating democratization and state-building in Afghanistan, he will be highly susceptible to charges of anti-Pashtun sentiments. A widespread Pashtun suspicion about the legitimacy of a non-Pahstun leader can complicate the counterinsurgency effort. Already the accusation that the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance has dominated the post-2001 government has fueled the Taliban.

Not very optimistic, is it? Karzai, it seems, can't rule without the crooks and the thugs. If his rival, Abdullah somehow pulls a rabbit out of his hat and wins, it's like pushing the "reset" button on the insurgency. From everything I've read, Abdullah would be the best guy for the country and for the Afghan people, but it's hard to see how he would be able to purge the legislature, the bureaucracy and the security services of the rampang corruption they're known for today.

So, to sum up, we're up to our alligators trying to hold back the Taliban as this criminal enterprise of a failed state continues to rot beneath our feet. Sooner or later we have to accept that, unless and until we find the resolve to overcome the scourges of warlordism and tribalism that plague Afghanistan, there is no hope - none whatsoever - of realizing a stable government for this country, democratic or otherwise. It will remain what it is today, an unresolved civil war on hiatus. What's the point of simply treading water when our treasure and forces could be deployed elsewhere in places where they could actually do some lasting good?

title credit - "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag"

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