Obama's Karzai Misstep
Given a chance to course correct, the U.S president's opted for Western idealism to decide the fate of post-2009 Afghanistan
Photo: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
The U.S and Afghan election cycles have a curious timing.
U.S: 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020
Afghanistan: 2004, 2009, 2014, 2019
Incoming U.S presidents have generally had an opportunity to change strategies when it comes to dealing with the “Afghanistan problem”. One such opportunity game in early 2009 when Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th U.S President, eight months before Afghanistan was to have their presidential election in September 2019.
Hamid Karzai was the incumbent who had been first selected in the Bonn Agreement in 2001, where world leaders and Afghan representatives met to decide who would be the leader in post-U.S invasion Afghanistan. Karzai was selected not only because he was well-spoken and and seen as being able to deal with international affairs, but because of his Pashtun background.
His background is important because in ethnically diverse Afghanistan, Pashtuns have historically held power positions with non-Pashtuns deferring to them as long as some level of autonomy was retained in non-Pashtun areas (i.e., the west, center and north). Karzai got the backing of non-Pashtuns again in the 2014 election because in the east and southern regions of Afghanistan, trouble was brewing in the form of a resurgent Taliban supported by Pakistan. These were Karzai’s own people (he came from the south) and the electorate expected him to deal with the problematic areas while leaving the relatively non-problematic ones alone (i.e., non-Pashtun areas).
Unfortunately for Karzai, he proved to be a weak and indecisive leader who failed to provide the basic necessities for his people. For example, his appointment of Naqibullah as governor of Qandahar was completely disregarded, with another local politician (Gul Aga Sherzai) moving into the governor’s palace and taking power1. He dealt with provincial issues by moving problem politicians and warlords to different regions rather than getting rid of them, making him look weak. This did not go unnoticed in non-Pashtun areas since these were exactly the problems he was elected to solve. He failed to provide the basic ingredients of a functioning government like security, economic development and infrastructure, because his style of leadership was patronage based, i.e., he bought support and alliances using the aid provided. In fact, his popular support by the time the 2009 election had waned so much that he rigged the election in such obvious ways that it became embarrassing2.
As Obama came to power in 2009, local and international support for Karzai was at an all-time low and a course correction was in order. However, unlike the British or Soviets who replaced Afghan leaders to seek regional stability serving their self-interests, America did nothing and opted for democracy to pave Afghanistan’s path. It feared it would be considered meddling in Afghanistan’s elections (even though they were fully invested militarily).
Since having a functioning democracy was a U.S benchmark of success, the U.S decided it would be up to the Afghans to kick Karzai out. At the same time, the Afghans thought it was the U.S that would choose their next president and saw no reason oppose the existing regime since they saw it as U.S-backed3.
This miscommunication gave Karzai a path to reelection despite domestic and international opposition. Karzai continued to mismanage the country into collapse while the Afghans blamed the U.S as they saw Karzai as their choice, and the U.S blamed the Afghans for not fulfilling the responsibilities of democracy.
This story is interesting because it highlights how a strategy inspired by Western values can fail when implemented in the East where people’s expectations of the ruling/power class is different. The U.S were seen by Afghans as their benefactors and charged with the responsibility of governing through proxy. The U.S deferred this responsibility to a rigged election system which the Afghans viewed as a formality rather than a referendum on Karzai. It would have saved Afghanistan years of torment and quite possibly the Taliban would have been eradicated if Obama had checked his and the international community’s gut and installed a stronger and more capable leader than the vacillating Karzai.
This is not a case of hindsight being 20/20, but about pivoting in the moment and going against the grain of conventional wisdom and policy.