So it seems Afghanistan may have the basis for ongoing political leadership after six months of uncertainty. Those months of bickering and stalling, threats and flip-flops had many dire ramifications, the greatest of which are likely yet to be witnessed. Progress in Afghanistan has been on pause and slipped on the fragile slope it occupies, harming the ambitions and livelihoods of many honest Afghans. In the meantime dozens of other nations around the world, some also locked in conflict, have seen transitions of power come and go. The uncertainty around Afghanistan’s new President has stalled important discussions about Afghanistan’s future. Most recently, a NATO summit meant to chart that future and to be attended by the new leader instead had to focus on how to deal with the immediate crisis. This is sort of how it often goes in Afghanistan, as pressing concerns occupy one’s full attention while the future rushes ever further a field.
The reports declare Ashraf Ghani will become the next President and his fierce adversary for the position, Dr. Abdullah Abduallah, will occupy a position of significant influence in the new unity government. This is absolutely necessary and will allow the nation to finally un-pause after languishing for half a year in the doldrums. Look a little deeper though and beyond the slow boiling contention of the presidency there is perhaps the even more disappointing fact that the unity government and the chief executive role (similar to that of a prime minister) that it creates for Abdullah have no basis in the Afghan Constitution or its election law. Again the present had to be more important than the future. What the consequences of this whole mess will be is yet to be seen and beyond my powers of speculation.
One thing that does interest me is the general silence of President Karzai throughout. He had little to say in public during the initial campaign or after as he continued to act as his nations leader during the candidates’ power struggle. Leading up to the NATO summit on Afghanistan the idea was raised of President Karzai attending instead of the undetermined President-elect. His spokesman nixed this saying that it would not benefit anyone involved. Indeed relations between Karzai and western authorities have soured in recent times. His refusal to sign any bilateral security agreement with the U.S. to keep troops on the ground post 2014 was one of several significant aggravations to western diplomats. While his stubbornness on the subject may have serious ramifications in the coming year it is decidedly an instance of Karzai looking forward rather than reacting to the moment. This is a privilege of leaders who know they are soon to leave their position of power.
In his resolute stance to leave the security agreement to the next, President Karzai has told the word he is not a puppet. His motives in this matter where likely selfish; an attempt to polish his reputation as a strong leader. In a sense they were also pragmatic. While many see his actions as that age old practice of passing the buck, it does make a certain kind of sense that the leader set to preside over the next five years in Afghanistan should have the chief role in deciding how it provides security and particularly how it interacts with foreign powers. Security and diplomacy are after all the chief realms of presidential power in democracies around the world.
The fact that Karzai has been able to pass the buck and even simply having the inclination to attempt shoring up his legacy as President are indications of a country practicing at least some aspects of democracy. While there is no doubt that the consummate backroom operator President Karzai is has made efforts to solidify his influence around the nation, he has not played the role of faux President cum dictator finally exposed while using creative means to remain in power. He has certainly had the opportunity to do so and with Ghani announced as his successor it seems he has turned from that path. Afghan law would have provided him the freedom to declare a state of emergency and postponing either the initial or runoff elections this year indefinitely. He could have claimed that the Taliban threat to civilian lives surrounding these events must have been quelled before votes could safely be cast. Using executive powers he could have remained President for as long as the Taliban remain a threat. When one considers the type of leader Karzai is it is not surprising he decided against such a move. There is no doubt the possibility must have been raised though and he chose not to pursue it.
Karzai has never been one to relish the role of commander-in-chief. This may be the primary factor that has led to him playing the part of outgoing democratic leader as opposed to vice grip tightening dictator. His lack of love for the military power that comes with the presidency is somewhat at odds with the way he gained the position in the first place. His actions in instigating the battle of Tirin Kot in Uruzgan province during the U.S. invasion was one of decided bravery. Blind and foolish bravery it may have been, and perhaps he believed himself omnipotent with U.S. air power behind him, but the simple fact is he put himself in a position of serious personal peril to produce the unraveling of the Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan. The battle was won by the dozen or so Green Berets on the ground who desperately coordinated air strikes from their position on the ground in Tirin Kot while Karzai’s motley band of Afghan rebels fled back into the provincial capital when faced with the onrushing Taliban army en route to smother them. Still, the battle would never have happened had Karzai not been persistent with his CIA handlers about the value of such a mission. He was vindicated when the somewhat lucky success of the battle led to the Taliban’s crumbling and soon after he was chosen as the nation’s new leader.
Once in power Karzai shied away from military concerns at least in the public manner that presidents and dictators the world over tend to seize the pulpit. In general Karzai’s method of governance remained out of the public sphere. This was decidedly negative for the development of democracy in Afghanistan, but another example of a necessary evil in Afghanistan’s post-U.S. invasion realities.
Karzai’s methods of governance mirror the tribal politics that dominate the nation. During the 1980s urban Afghans made a show of embracing Communism under Soviet rule, but the simple fact is tribal rules were never diminished during their occupation, particularly in the vast rural tracts of the mountainous nation. Karzai, while western educated in the ideals of democracy, understood from the beginning the deep roots of tribalism he would need to tap to maintain some measure of control as President. He cultivated personal relationships with elders across the country. His grassroots networking helped him govern day after day, but prevented the growth of democratic institutions. Such development was a clear mandate of his position and perhaps one of his greatest failures as president, but that does not mean he could have proceeded in any other manner.
There are many stories of instances where Karzai would phone a police chief or admonish a minister for not addressing some problem or shortcoming he was aware of through his vast network. It is true that people in leadership positions around Afghanistan should have been more in touch with the developments connected to their work and that the President should demand better of them. Still, the fact that Karzai was so active in collecting information himself undermined their ability to do their job. To build strong, lasting democratic institutions (the real meat of a resilient democracy) he should have empowered his ministers and other deputies to build their departments into self sufficient organizations with strong information gathering and response abilities. Instead he chose to do this for them, an impossibility for any one person to accomplish. Such a state could only bread a class of administrators who would become more capable of weathering reprimands and practicing reactionary work than progressive development. Karzai’s favored method of meeting directly with tribal leaders to hear and respond to their needs was a decidedly tribal method of governance and therefore a decidedly Afghan method as well.
Tribal politics may have been the keystone to Karzai’s machinations, but it cannot be the prevailing modus operandi going forward if a strong central state is to develop. This does not mean it should be circumvented or diminished though. Tribalism has its roots not only in Afghanistan’s history, but in the natural environment itself. Anand Gopal describes its place in the Afghan political landscape particularly well in his book No Good Men Among the Living.
“For a long time, the people of the Afghan valleys herded sheep and goats. Wealth in pastoral societies is a peculiar thing, because, being on the hoof, it can wander off or be pilfered or slaughtered. With too little to go around and no state to enforce property relations, fighting could be frequent and brutal. You adapted by leaning on those you trusted most: first your immediate family, then your cousins, your cousins’ cousins, and so on. Clannishness, in other words, was not a symptom of Afghans’ preternaturally backward ways, but rather a sensible response to harsh and precarious conditions. Over time, the mountain dwellers developed complicated kinship networks of trust and solidarity, organized into groups called “tribes” that they believed had descended from a common ancestor. Hundreds of Pashtun tribes, large and small, are scattered across the country.”
The environmental factors that created this system are not going away anytime soon and so tribalism is not a barrier to be eradicated, but rather an endemic reality Afghans and westerners involved in Afghanistan’s ongoing development will have to learn to adapt and utilize.
Karzai’s approach to governing his country is evidence of an adept assessment of the long-standing structure of power in the nation’s countryside and seemingly appeased the urban elites as well. This cannot be the chief policy of the next administration. President-elect Ghani and his soon to be chief executive of the government Dr. Abdullah have both stated they will sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. The importance of the stagnating deal has only increased this year as the Taliban have had their most successful six months in the history of the conflict. Both men should prove stronger wartime commanders than Karzai who continually shied away from his role as military chief. The economic woes of the nation have also deepened in the power vacuum that Karzai silently presided over.
This week’s news is welcome and a step forward, but the truly important questions remain and Dr. Abdullah’s role raises even more. It is important to remember though that while disaster can strike in a moment, progress has ever been a slow marching procession. If one accepts the creeping nature of positive change then perhaps Karzai was the best option for the beginning of the grand experiment of democracy in Afghanistan. Even if his model should not be perpetuated in its entirety, he risked everything to give Afghanistan this opportunity during the U.S. invasion and is now poised to cede power to two men who were his rivals in the last election. Even if the election process was filled with fraud and discord the handover of power will be a victory for democracy.
Many Afghans approval of Karzai has dipped since his refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement. The full effect of this decision is yet to be seen and the significance of the election mess may be impossibly entangled with Karzai’s decision in determining where responsibility lies for the result. What can be said is that Karzai stood up for the rights of his fellow Afghans in refusing U.S. forces the right to enter Afghan homes in pursuit of terrorists. One can doubt the ability of Afghan police to execute U.S. intelligence in a legal manner (or if sharing such intelligence is even prudential), but allowing a foreign military such rights is a clear violation of sovereignty. This is something no American would approve of on U.S. soil and if the U.S. military were to successful acquire this right and utilize it they would undermine the development of democracy in Afghanistan.
President Karzai was an enigmatic and occasionally an oddly absent leader occupying a position of the utmost demand in a land harsh in every way, from its environment to its fanatical elements. He was a unlikely, yet suitable leader for the present and now the need is for more anticipatory leadership. As with everything in Afghanistan, Karzai’s ultimate errors and achievements find their places splattered about an indistinguishable canvas. What is clear is his time as President is near to its end and it will soon be Ghani’s turn to fiddle with the endless knot of Afghanistan’s challenges.