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In defense of Hamid Karzai

Posted by on September 28th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Joshua Foust mounts a spirited and comprehensive defense of Afghan president Hamid Karzai over at Foreign Policy mag's Af/Pak Channel today. A "must read", Joshua argues that Karzai is as much a victim of unfortunate circumstance as an instigator, and that no other possible candidate would do any better than Karzai given the tightrope an Afghan president must walk.

He’s representing a population that is growing increasingly disillusioned with Western promises and actions. The Taliban is making steady progress in affecting vast swaths of territory. There is incredible pressure in Kabul to negotiate some sort of end to the fighting — and not necessarily on terms the U.S. wants to see. Karzai only has two real bargaining chips: political influence, and money. When the United States installed him in Kabul in 2002, no one considered Hamid Karzai a particularly corrupt individual — certainly not by Afghan standards. But to fulfill the duties of his office, Karzai had no choice but to trade money and money-making positions to get even minimal results.

Afghanistan does not have the benefit of strong institutions, so governance is based on relationships and patronage — trading favors, or appointments, for money. In the West, it is normally called corruption. In Afghanistan, though, corruption is, unfortunately, how the system works….With only limited power to coerce his rivals, and moral suasion of limited value in a land ruled by ruthless, unsentimental men, corruption is just about the only tool an Afghan president has.


Western governments have nonetheless hammered Karzai on corruption and ineffectiveness, threatening to withhold aid unless he acts swiftly and decisively to clean up his act. The international community wants to de-personalize Afghan power politics, replacing the current system of patronage with something more formal and institutionalized. Yet to focus only on corruption is to address symptoms rather than causes: if the president can only govern through corruption, then the system, not the president, is the problem.


maybe it’s less a question about Karzai than about U.S. expectations. If those can’t be met, Washington has a much bigger problem on its hands.

 Well, yeah. Trying to stand up a pro-Western democracy that isn't too corrupt and can defend itself, when Western militaries are occupying the country and killing civilians, when warlords and powerbrokers need to be bought off and where there isn't nearly enough revenue to pay for the security forces is a big problem. It's a problem which may be inherently insoluble even in the long term and for which the presence of 130,000 Western troops is certainly counter-productive.


Peace will come to Afghanistan when the various factions of Karzai's government come to some kind of deal with the Taliban's various factions – and that deal may well not be one the West will like very much. Tough. It's their country. We're back to the Real Pottery Barn Rule: "you broke it, pay up and get the fuck out of our store; it's none of your business whether we fix things up or burn the store down around our own ears."

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