This week has not been a pleasant one for Hamid Karzai. Following an embarrassing outburst where he declared, among other things, “I might join the Taliban”, Western media outlets have kept up a steady barrage of open editorials lampooning the President. Foreign Policy, Slate, Small War Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Huffington Post, and Politico all published articles declaring the President to be "crazy", "unhinged", "mad", and "erratic." Simple name calling was not enough for The New York Times, which decided to up the ante with a more ambitious headline: "How to Save Afghanistan from Karzai". Even the NATO press office piled on, accusing Karzai of "Undermining the Alliance's Efforts in Afghanistan".
These are serious charges, are they not? To call an ally mad is no slight thing. Nor is branding a head of state an enemy to his country a light matter. I find that these accusations, so freely given, say more about the accuser than the accused. Washington never can take responsibility for problems of its creation.
Consider the uncomfortable situation Karzai finds himself in now. From yesterday's Asia Times Online:
Gareth Porter. Asia Times Online. 17 April 2010.
Those statements clearly suggested the intention to get the support of local tribal elders before going ahead with the large-scale military operation scheduled to begin in June.
That is what Karzai said to a shura of between 1,000 and 2,000 Kandahar province tribal elders on April 4. Karzai said NATO's Kandahar operation would not be carried out until the elders themselves were ready to support it, according to a number of press reports.
According to the report by RTA, Afghanistan's state television service, Karzai actually said, "I know you are worried about this operation," before asking their opinion. He also said that the shuras to be organized at the district level were for the purpose of "getting approval and deciding" on the operation, according to the RTA report.
And the assembled elders made it known that they didn't want the operation.…
According to the RTA account, one elder interrupted Karzai to say, "Who are the Taliban, but my son and another's nephew? The problem is actually these people who are in power, in particular the tribal elders and those who have power in Kandahar city."
An AFP wire report gives further details on the shura:
Karzai pledges consultation before new offensive
Sarar Ahmed. AFP. 4 April 2010.
Sarar Ahmed. AFP. 4 April 2010.
Speaking on a high-security visit to Kandahar city with the head of coalition forces General Stanley McChrystal and top NATO official Mark Sedwill, Karzai said: "These days the foreigners speak of an operation in Kandahar. "Are you worried?" he asked hundreds of local tribal elders, who shouted back: "Yes, we are."
"Well, if you are worried, then there won't be an operation unless you are happy about it," Karzai responded, adding that all local leaders would be "consulted first and there will be an operation to bring security".
To recap: President Karzai hosts a shura with Kandahar’s tribal leadership. During this meeting he pledges that no offensive will take place in their homes, on their lands, or in their villages without their consent. They proceed to deny this consent. What is the ISAF’s response?
Read the first headline again. Here is the lead that follows it:
WASHINGTON - The United States military has now officially backtracked from its earlier suggestion that it would seek the consent of local shuras, or consultative conferences with those elders, to carry out the military occupation of Kandahar city and nearby districts - contradicting a pledge by Afghan President Hamid Karzai not to carry out the operation without such consent.
Lieutenant Colonel Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops in Afghanistan, told Inter Press Service on Tuesday that local tribal elders in Kandahar could "shape the conditions" under which the influx of foreign troops operated during the operation, but would not determine whether or where NATO troops would be deployed in and around the city.
A counterinsurgency, we are often reminded, is only as effective as the government it is trying to protect. The key word here is legitimacy. If the population believes the government to be illegitimate and unlawful, it will lend support to insurgents attempting its overthrow. If the government is perceived to be legitimate, then the populace has little need to harbor insurgents. In this sense, COIN can be boiled down to exercises in glorified state building.
I jest - but only just. Population-centric counterinsurgency theory is a bit more complex than this characterization allows. The central point, however, is unchanged. The success of a counterinsurgency ultimately rests on the legitimacy of the governing institutions the insurgent wars against.
Which is why so many people dislike President Karzai. The President has surrounded himself with warlords. He comes from a family rolling in drug money – and uses his position to ensure that none of them will ever be prosecuted for it. Corruption is ubiquitous in his administration. These things, say Western diplomats, soldiers, analysts, and newsmen, undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The Karzai administration has too much bribery, blood, and drugs in its past to serve as the face for a legitimate Afghani national government.
This criticism misses the mark by a mile.
This criticism misses the mark by a mile.
Afghanistan has been in various states of insurgency, civil war, and religious repression for more than 30 years. In such an environment anybody in a position of power has blood on his hands and dirty money in his pockets. You will find no paragons of virtue ready to step up and do the West’s bidding on either side of the Durand line. This is a reality.
Sadly, it is a reality Americans ignore. Its implications, its seems, are simply too painful to accept.
Westerners like to think that a legitimate government must be based on the rule of law. This idea is bizarre. Our times are witness to many a government ruled by men who are nonetheless completely legitimate in the eyes of those they govern. On the surface, these governments maintain their legitimacy by providing what the people desire. Welfare. Moral authority. Peace. And so on.
But legitimacy is not just about the goods. It is a matter of expectations. Governments are not legitimate because they provide the services desired by the populace – they are legitimate because the populace trusts their ability to do so. This is the core of legitimacy. Can you trust the government to work for your interests? Can you trust government officials to keep their commitments? It all boils down to trust.
And trust is exactly what President Karzai does not have.
But whose fault is this? Do the people of Kandahar distrust their President because he held a shura to consult with his constituents? Do they distrust President Karzai because he promised to bring his policies in line with their interests? Is this why Karzai lacks legitimacy? Or do the people of Kandahar distrust their government because the promises it makes inevitably prove to be a worthless shams?
We treat Karzai like a dog. We ask him to jump through our hoops, to align his policies with foreign whims. We tell him to strengthen government control over the country, and then reprimand him for strong man politics. We continually force him into situations where he must undermine his own promises and obligations. And then we complain about his 'lack of legitimacy'.
Pray tell me – who is the crazy one here?