I watched Barack Obama’s victory speech in Kabul, where his campaign promises have had particular resonance. The stage is now set for Washington to send thousands more US troops to Afghanistan, and once Obama’s new team reviews the complexities of the counterinsurgency mission there, I suspect the United States will match troop increases with greater civilian resources to support economic development projects and to help extend the writ of the Afghan state.
But an enormous gap still looms in US policy: no one is sure what to do about President Hamid Karzai. Elections are scheduled for next fall, and the Afghan capital is buzzing with questions about whether Karzai can, or should, win another five-year term.
It would be nice to say that America should support the principle of free Afghan elections and focus on process over personalities. Indeed, the defence of Afghanistan’s nascent electoral institutions and culture is a worthy cause in and of itself.
But Washington’s unmatched influence in Kabul means that it cannot sit impassively – inaction will send as loud a message as action.
The Afghan state is on external life support. Its institutions require foreign donors and its security is guaranteed by international troops.
Afghans understand these facts, so they are watching for any signal from Washington about whether Karzai will continue to enjoy American largesse.
Karzai is also acutely aware of his dependence upon outside benefactors – he has always been uncomfortably sandwiched between the Afghan people and the international community.
By all measures, Karzai remains the favoured candidate. He enjoys the benefits of incumbency, he has accumulated experience in international diplomacy, and he is one of Afghanistan’s least divisive Pashtun politicians. Unlike many other leaders who emerged from decades of civil war, Karzai is neither feared nor hated by ethnic groups outside his own.
But practically any conversation in Kabul quickly exposes a wide range of harsh anti-Karzai criticism. Many international officials cite the alleged corruption of his family and political allies, note that he has proven himself a decidedly ineffective institution-builder, and voice concern over his increasingly shrill, populist rhetoric.
Liberal Afghans suggest that Karzai has now squandered his credibility with the public, infrequently ventures outside his presidential bubble, and is too weak-willed to get much done in a war-hardened society.
Some accuse Karzai of pandering to Pashtuns, others say he hasn’t cultivated a genuine base of Pashtun support.
Many of these complaints smell of sour grapes or the inevitable disillusionment of expectations unmet. Moreover, the vast majority of Karzai’s critics tend to be united in one important way: they cannot identify a single individual likely to do a better job. The field of presidential aspirants is weak, and all rumoured contenders are flawed.
Some darlings of the international community lack grassroots constituencies. Those with great appeal in one ethnic community might alienate other influential ethnic groups and threaten prospects for national unity. Some are too bloodstained from Afghanistan’s long civil wars; others who spent time outside the country are labelled cowards of questionable allegiance.
In the fog of Afghanistan’s insurgency, the new Obama team will need to step forward quickly to determine whether Karzai is a minimally capable partner, or if he is so weak that his re-election would pose an insuperable obstacle to the effort to put the Afghan state-building project on the right track. If Karzai is deemed too great an impediment, the next question is whether – and how – to help ease him out of the presidential race before his departure from the race would itself be destabilising.
If, on the other hand, Karzai is considered minimally acceptable, Washington must work overtime to make sure his increasingly heavy-handed efforts to sideline other contenders won’t endanger the legitimacy of the election process.
Seizing upon Obama’s campaign pledges, American, Afghan and international officials in Kabul all expect more troops, more money and more attention.
Many still believe we can beat the Taliban, root out terrorists and make steady progress in the long slog toward building a modern Afghan state.
But first-order political questions are still outstanding, and they start with leadership.
Afghanistan’s own electoral timeline is already starting to dictate US military plans and assistance priorities.
On the Karzai question in particular, Obama has tough choices to make, and soon.
* Daniel S. Markey is senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia on the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from International Herald Tribune.