There are two schools of thought about Hamid Karzai. The first is that he's a vain, incompetent, monumentally corrupt leader with serious mood-disorder problems that require medication. The second is that the President of Afghanistan is a deceptively clever politician who has built a serviceable coalition among Afghanistan's riot of tribes and factions which requires a certain amount of skill and, shall we say, lubrication and a deft public figure who knows how to balance his dependence on the U.S. military against his public's increasing frustration with an endless war.
Both are true, to a certain extent. But there is more to the matter: even if Karzai had turned out to be the Nelson Mandela that some thought he was after Afghanistan's neighbors and the NATO coalition chose to install him as leader in December 2001, there is a strong possibility that Afghanistan would still be at war and in chaos. The cycles of U.S. obsession and inattention since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have not helped matters. If we can argue as U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry did in a famously leaked memo that Karzai was "not a reliable partner," Karzai can certainly say the same about us. The U.S., for example, has wobbled between demanding squeaky-clean governance in Kabul and bestowing bags of cash on some of the worst thugs in the country.
If personal merit were the sole standard for selection, Karzai wouldn't be one of the Persons of the Year. He is a man who, over time, has proved his utter lack of distinction. He is, however, the central figure in the foreign policy conundrum of the year: What to do about the war in Afghanistan? And he, more than any other Afghan, will determine the outcome.
In a way, Karzai is a perfect metaphor for his country: a peripheral, impoverished, landlocked place that has somehow placed itself athwart the world's great empires throughout history. In the 19th century, when Afghanistan served as a prime killing field in the great game for control of central Asia between Britain and Russia, the British press defined Afghanistanism as the obsession with obscure foreign wars at the expense of domestic priorities.
The current Afghan war seemed not at all obscure, at first. It seemed crucial to U.S. national-security interests: a lightning ouster of the Taliban government that had harbored Osama bin Laden as he planned the Sept. 11 attacks. But the war slowly became the same old Afghan snake pit a sapping struggle, largely an Afghan civil war, with no clear end in sight.
The Karzai presidency started auspiciously. He seemed a perfect fit. He came from a distinguished Pashtun family that opposed the Taliban, which had assassinated his diplomat father. He was the rare Pashtun who seemed able, and willing, to find common cause with Afghanistan's minority ethnic factions. He was a fashion statement in his colorful cloaks and karakul hat. But he never seemed very interested in building an Afghan state. As time went on and the corruption and lassitude in Kabul increased, the NATO nations locked in an increasingly bloody war against a resurgent Taliban grew frustrated with him.
In 2010 the corruption surrounding Karzai seemed ever more public and spectacular. He came into the year wounded by the ballot stuffing that attended his 2009 re-election campaign. Then in the spring, one of Karzai's closest advisers, Mohammed Zia Salehi, was arrested by Afghan investigators for demanding a bribe in return for impeding a U.S. investigation into money laundering. In August, Karzai had Salehi sprung from jail. More recently, Karzai's former Vice President Ahmed Zia Massoud was implicated in one of the WikiLeaks documents for trying to enter Dubai with $52 million in cash. (Massoud has denied that allegation.)
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