Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Hamid Karzai

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.)

But the corruption was less troubling, in a way, than Karzai's steady drift toward anti-American rhetoric. In June he made the ridiculous assertion that the U.S. was involved in a rocket attack on his peace jirga. In October he admitted he had received "bags of cash" from the Iranians — an act of "patriotism" that he compared to receiving support from the U.S. His relationship with U.S. commanding general David Petraeus turned very rocky as Karzai noisily protested the most effective U.S. tactics in the war — night raids against Taliban leaders by special-ops teams. In late November, he stormed out of a meeting with Petraeus about the presence of private Western security contractors. After meeting with Karzai in mid-November, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid reported that the Afghan President was turning against the West: "What is clear is that he no longer supports the 'war on terrorism' as defined by Washington, and he sees NATO's military surge in the south as unhelpful."

Ranking U.S. officials don't take such talk very seriously. The rhetoric, they argue, is mostly for the benefit of a war-weary public that has never had a very high tolerance for foreign troops. And that is true, but there has also been a newly purposeful direction to Karzai's rants. He spent the year trying to move closer to his regional neighbors Pakistan and Iran and to open reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Those talks came a cropper when the leading "Taliban" interlocutor turned out to be an impostor, but whether and how to engage with his adversaries remains a real policy difference between Karzai and the U.S. military, if not the State Department: the Afghan President appears more interested in making a deal with the Taliban than Petraeus is.

Karzai's growing frustration with the endless war — and the endless demands from his sponsors that he try harder to be an effective leader — is matched by a growing frustration within the Obama Administration, which is increasingly skeptical about the massive resources being shoveled into this ever frustrating contest. The original casus belli — al-Qaeda — is barely present at all in Afghanistan now. Its members are hunkered down across the border in Pakistan's frontier territories, and it may be shifting some of its operations to Yemen, as U.S. Predator-drone attacks in Pakistan take their toll. Meanwhile, the U.S. is suffering an extended, and perhaps historic, economic languor and massive budget deficits; the defense budget will not be immune to cuts in the coming year. And Afghanistanism seems likely to become a national debate before long: Is building roads and police stations in Afghanistan more important than doing so at home?

There are no immediate plans to abandon the fray — indeed, at Karzai's behest, NATO has agreed to a few more seasons of fighting, with a 2014 deadline — but there is a palpable desire in the U.S. and among the NATO allies to wind things down as quickly as possible, leaving the Afghan security forces to carry the fight. Not even the strongest war opponents in the Obama Administration believe that the U.S. should completely abandon Afghanistan (and the political strategists in the White House know it would be disastrous to do so before the President's 2012 re-election campaign). At the very least, the effort to train and equip the Afghan security forces is likely to continue in perpetuity.

But in 2010, the notion of Hamid Karzai as a solid, legitimate Afghan leader died a slow, wasting death. "The question we're all asking now," an American official in Kabul told me recently, "is whether we can succeed here without him."