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October 08, 2010

Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game
Posted by Eric Martin

Joshua Foust makes several insightful points when discussing the recent bout of criticism and, at times, outright mockery of Hamid Karzai, as well as the recurring calls for his removal.  First, Foust highlights the very poorly thought-out, hyper-centralized government that was established in Kabul - with heavy-handed Western influence:

The problem with focusing on Karzai so much is it places the entire onus for success or failure on Karzai, the person, when the bigger problem is the institution of the presidency. Afghanistan has one of the most centralized governments in the world. Karzai is responsible for managing the performance of 34 provincial governors, 400 or so district sub-governors, and all their associated chiefs of police, to say nothing of competing constituencies in Kabul. He personally appoints all government officials down to district administrators, of which there are hundreds. It’s no wonder he is having trouble governing.

Not only does Karzai have to govern all the way down to the micro-level in every province, district and town (which requires an enormous amount of resources and brain power), his government also stands to take the blame when something goes wrong in each of those regions and sub-regions.  Because there are fewer intermediaries to take the heat or manage the situation, his government is on the hook for virtually everthing, from the actions of school teachers to policemen.  For a country without a strong tradition of centralized government, creating one that makes France's look laissez faire was of dubious wisdom.


Foust's points about corruption are also worth highlighting:

...Karzai only has two real bargaining chips: political influence, and money. When the United States installed him in Kabul in 2002, no one considered Hamid Karzai a particularly corrupt individual -- certainly not by Afghan standards. But to fulfill the duties of his office, Karzai had no choice but to trade money and money-making positions to get even minimal results.


Afghanistan does not have the benefit of strong institutions, so governance is based on relationships and patronage -- trading favors, or appointments, for money. In the West, it is normally called corruption. In Afghanistan, though, corruption is, unfortunately, how the system works. Karzai could not have removed the warlord Ismail Khan from Herat in 2004, for instance, if he hadn't offered Khan a ministerial position to compensatehim for the loss of power and privilege. Nor could he have simply wished away Gul Agha Sherzai's predatory rule of Kandahar without promising him power and money and influence elsewhere (in that case, the province of Nangarhar, where Sherzai is now governor). With only limited power to coerce his rivals, and moral suasion of limited value in a land ruled by ruthless, unsentimental men, corruption is just about the only tool an Afghan president has.


Western governments have nonetheless hammered Karzai on corruption and ineffectiveness, threatening to withhold aid unless he acts swiftly and decisively to clean up his act. The international community wants to de-personalize Afghan power politics, replacing the current system of patronage with something more formal and institutionalized. Yet to focus only on corruption is to address symptoms rather than causes: if the president can only govern through corruption, then the system, not the president, is the problem.

Given hat Karzai must use government largesse to garner needed support, treating this type of coercion as a form of corruption that must be eradicated places a high-minded ideal ahead, chronologically, of government institutions that would permit such a noble course. 


Instead, the focus should be on what the various factions do with the money they receive from Karzai in exchange for their support: with an emphasis on pressuring recipients to spend the money in Afghanistan, on projects whose benefits are more widely realized, rather than funneling cash to foreign bank accounts.  That, in addition to curtailing mistreatment of local populations to the extent possible. 


Regarding the many calls to depose Karzai, or scrap the whole system and start from scratch, Foust makes a compelling argument that it's simply too late in the game to start over, that it would greatly damage the credibilty of the coalition's mission and that the realities of Afghanistan would likely produce something very similar to the Karzai regime. 


However, given those realities, and the extreme likelihood that they will make effective governance of Afghanistan an unrealistic aspiration, it is all the more reason that steady, yet measured, de-escalation is a far more attractive option.  The only option really.


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