Friday 5 February 2010

How Karzai outsmarted the diplomats

Haseeb Humayoon's report for the Institute for the Study of War on President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan elections, The Re-election of Hamid Karzai, answers a number of questions that have been bugging me for some time.
Why did US Ambassador Eikenberry ostentatiously visit the office of rival candidates during the election campaign and why did US Special Representative Richard Holbrooke press so hard for a run-off against Abdullah Abdullah? Most fundamentally, why did the US allow the media and public to believe that it was against a Karzai victory in the elections? Humayoon argues cogently that most Afghans were against such a run-off.
He says that US diplomats underestimated President Karzai's grip on the political machine in Kabul. Karzai was able to outsmart US diplomats because he had formed alliances (documented by this blog, but not by many writers) with a select group of regional and local leaders, including Ismail Khan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Haji Mohammad Muhaqiq and Gul Agha Sherzai. He says that the choice of vice president and defence minister Marshal Fahim was critical to the success of Karzai's campaign.
Karzai's political machine also included the nucleus of a new political elite, savvy and connected, whose reach to areas outside Kabul, says Humayoon, "is much greater than generally recognised. Often their influence beyond the capital exists through personal, commercial, family, and political networks, rather than through official institutions that are easily recognizable to the international community."
Humayoon says that the Kabul regime has not so much been losing out to insurgents in more remote parts of Afghanistan. Instead, both Kabul and the insurgents have been competing to fill political vacuums, where there has been no political life for more than a generation. This makes perfect sense and is a perceptive insight.
The corollary is that although the insurgency has been expanding, few people have noticed the extent to which Karzai and his allies have also been extending their political networks outside the capital.
It therefore follows that there is little point in trying to explain events in Afghanistan by using such terms as 'corruption', 'fraud' or 'warlords'. This form of analysis belongs to a different era. Of course, corruption continues to exist, but concentrating on this hides the growing commercial interests and the rise of an "ambitious, wealthy and influential political class".
Although Afghanistan's political set-up may give the appearance of fragility, it has some strengths. Humayoon says it now needs to develop a national political culture, a state bureaucracy (with separate interests from the political players) and a system that can deliver economic and social reform.
Overall, this is an excellent report. It is significant that it has been written by an Afghan, who is able to follow the twists and turns amongst the political elite in Kabul.
Already, we can see that Karzai's efforts to lead from the front on the question of reintegrating Taliban supporters is not necessarily an action that stems from political weakness, but from a wilyness and political acumen that have so far been much underestimated. There's life in the old fox yet.

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