Why Hamid Karzai makes a bad partner for the U.S.
President Obama will soon have 100,000 troops fighting a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Their success depends on having a credible Afghan partner. Unfortunately, Obama's partner is Hamid Karzai.
In the eight years since the Bush administration helped install Karzai as president after the fall of the Taliban, he has run a government so ineffective that Afghans deride him as being no more than the mayor of Kabul and so corrupt that his country ranks 179th on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, just ahead of last-place Somalia, which has no government at all.
Afghanistan held a presidential election last August just as Obama was ramping up U.S. support for the war. Although funded by the United States and other Western countries and supported by the United Nations, the elections were massively fraudulent. Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) -- which, despite its name, is appointed by and answers to Karzai -- oversaw massive vote-rigging in which at least one-third of Karzai's tally, more than 1 million votes, was fake. A separate, independently appointed Electoral Complaints Commission eventually tossed out enough Karzai votes to force a second round of balloting, but the IEC ensured that the voting procedures were even more prone to fraud than those applied to the first round. Karzai's main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, rightly chose not to participate in the second round.
Many Afghans understandably do not see Karzai as a democratically elected leader. So America's Afghan partner suffers from a legitimacy deficit in addition to his track record of ineffectiveness and corruption.
Karzai has responded to this legitimacy crisis not by fixing his country's broken electoral processes but by trying to corrupt it further. Ahead of parliamentary elections due this fall, Karzai promulgated a decree giving himself power to appoint all five members of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) and stripping the commission of most of its powers. Far from rejecting this outrageous power play, the U.N. mission in Kabul tried to broker a compromise under which it would propose two names to Karzai (previously the United Nations had appointed three members) but still leave him with the final authority to appoint all members of the emasculated commission. Fortunately, Afghanistan's parliament recently rejected this shameful compromise.
The parliament's actions seem to have sent Karzai off the deep end, as his recent remarks show. In contrast to previous assertions that last year's elections were not fraudulent, Karzai claimed in a speech last week that I orchestrated the deception while serving in Afghanistan: "Foreigners did the fraud. Galbraith did it," he said. According to Karzai, I stole the election on his behalf so I could embarrass him by leaking word of the fraud to the international media and thus weaken his authority. (The irony, as I wrote in The Post last October, is that I urged my superiors at the United Nations to do something about the fraud, and they not only disagreed but fired me.) Karzai also told Afghan parliamentarians that he might join the Taliban and, this week, claimed that the United States had perpetrated the fraud.
Some American supporters have suggested that Karzai is simply playing to the crowd back home. But many Afghans find his behavior as disturbing as Americans do. Abdullah Abdullah, a medical doctor as well as a politician, said in a news conference Friday that Karzai's behavior was "not normal" and criticized him for squandering U.S. support as the situation is becoming most dire.
The White House has rightly expressed concern. Press secretary Robert Gibbs called Karzai's allegations "simply untrue" and "troubling." He declined this week to call Karzai an ally and suggested his May 12 visit to Washington might be in jeopardy.
The Obama administration should put the United States squarely on the side of democracy in Afghanistan. First, U.S. officials should stop saying, as Gibbs did Tuesday, that Karzai is in office as a result of legitimate democratic elections. Afghans know that is not true. Afghanistan cannot hold parliamentary elections this fall unless other countries fund them. As Congress considers appropriations for the Afghanistan war, it should attach a rider making any U.S. financial contribution to the parliamentary elections contingent on Afghanistan establishing genuinely independent election bodies that have no Karzai appointees. Karzai's decision this week to replace the head of the Independent Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer are no comfort. As long as he appoints their successors, Karzai controls the electoral process, making a rerun of last year's fraud all but certain. As bad as it would be to not hold parliamentary elections, fraudulent elections could plunge Afghanistan into a civil war.
U.S. troops can clear Taliban forces from an area. But if the Taliban is to be kept away, U.S. efforts must be followed by Afghan soldiers who can provide security and Afghan police who can provide law and order. Most important, an Afghan government must provide honest administration and win the loyalty of the population. Karzai's corrupt, ineffective and illegitimate government cannot win the loyalty of the population. U.S. troops do not have the credible Afghan partner that is essential for the success of Obama's counterinsurgency strategy. And because U.S. troops cannot accomplish their mission in Afghanistan, it is a waste of military resources to have them there.
President Obama should halt the surge in Afghanistan and initiate a partial withdrawal -- not as a means to pressure Karzai but because Karzai's government is incapable of becoming a credible local partner.
Peter W. Galbraith served as the U.N. secretary general's deputy special representative to Afghanistan from June through September 2009.