Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Can the West salvage Karzai’s reputation?
That sure was fast.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told American TV audiences that Afghan President Hamid Karzai needed to take steps to fight graft, including setting up a new anti-corruption task force, if he wants to keep U.S. support. Less than 24 hours later, there was Karzai’s interior minister at a luxury hotel in Kabul — flanked by the U.S. and British ambassadors — announcing exactly that. A new major crimes police task force, anti-corruption prosecution unit and special court will be set up, at least the third time that Afghan authorities and their foreign backers have launched special units to tackle corruption.
There are just a couple of days left before Karzai is inaugurated for a new term as president. Perhaps a few more days after that, U.S. President Barack Obama will announce whether he is sending tens of thousands of additional troops to join the 68,000 Americans and 40,000 NATO-led allies fighting there.
A fraud-tainted election has wrecked Karzai’s reputation in the Western countries whose troops defend him. Support for the eight-year-old war has plummeted over the past few months, even as the death tolls have reached their highest levels yet. For better or worse, Karzai’s Western backers know they are stuck with the veteran leader for another five years, and need to resurrect his reputation fast.
Regardless of how many extra troops Obama sends, the war in Afghanistan is the most important foreign policy issue of his presidency. If he is going to maintain support at home, he needs to show the American people that protecting the Karzai government is a cause worth sending their sons and daughters to die for. That means, after weeks of grumbling about Karzai in public, you should expect to see U.S. officials accentuating the positive in coming days. VIPs who stayed away will be heading to Kabul for the inauguration. Karzai’s new government, expected not to be much different from his old government, will nonetheless be welcomed as an improvement. Hands will be shaken and warm words spoken.
The election was the sort of travesty that can’t be easily swept under a rug. A U.N.-backed probe concluded that nearly a third of votes cast for Karzai were fake. The strong position against vote fraud taken by Peter Galbraith – a former senior U.S. diplomat sacked from his post as deputy head of the U.N. mission in Kabul – showed how deeply divided the Western contingent in Kabul was over the issue. Privately diplomats praise Galbraith for exposing the fraud, but publicly they are struggling to undo the damage to Karzai caused by the debacle.
The ultimate outcome of the election was probably fair. Diplomats say Karzai would probably have won outright in a first round if Taliban threats and rocket attacks had not forced many of his fellow Pashtun voters in the south to stay home on election day in August. He almost certainly would have won in a second round, if his opponent Abdullah Abdullah had not quit six days before it was due to be held.
But the ugly process has yielded only one real winner: the Taliban. An election whose main purpose was to shore up the legitimacy of the Afghan president has instead shredded his reputation and rattled the resolve of his allies. Exactly what the militants hoped for when they sent rockets raining down on voters three months ago.