How to manage Karzai

By Stephen Biddle
Monday, May 10, 2010; A17

This week's state visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai almost wasn't going to happen.

The Obama administration, unhappy with Karzai's attempt to pack the Afghan Electoral Commission with supporters willing to ignore voting fraud, briefly held the visit hostage this spring. This striking move also followed Karzai's threat to join the Taliban. In the ensuing brouhaha last month much of Washington wondered, loudly, whether Karzai was an adequate partner.

This is the wrong question.

Local partners are almost never adequate at the outset -- this is why they face insurgencies in the first place. Almost by definition, counterinsurgency implies a problematic host government. If the local leadership were effective already, there would be no insurgency to fight.

Nor is the leader the problem. Americans often want to "fix" things by replacing the leader. As recently as 2006, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was the subject of a similar debate: Was Maliki a suitable partner or so flawed a personality as to require replacement? In Vietnam, the United States decided that Ngo Dinh Diem was too erratic and quietly allowed a coup to remove him. Yet Maliki presided over a major reduction in violence, whereas new management hardly improved the war effort in Vietnam.

The real issue is not whether Karzai is an adequate partner but, rather, how to make his government into one. The answer is to change its incentives.

The United States needs a consistent, balanced program of private sticks and public carrots designed to push Afghan governance gradually toward reform.

U.S. policy since 2001 has oscillated between schizophrenic extremes. The Bush administration saw Hamid Karzai as a hero. From 2001-08, it provided aid but made few demands while President George W. Bush built a personal relationship based on admiration of Karzai's bravery in standing up to the Taliban in 2001. This all-carrot-and-no-stick policy failed, and Afghan governance got worse.

The Obama administration entered office determined to overturn their predecessor's mistakes. This produced stern public demands for reform coupled with threats of withheld benefits and a commitment to early U.S. withdrawal. The attempted public coercion instead caused Karzai to dig in his heels. This was only partly attributable to Karzai's mercurial personality. Afghan politics would push any incumbent to resist such strong-arm tactics; any president who gave in to such ultimatums would look like a puppet of foreign interests. And in a country with Afghanistan's xenophobic political culture, a U.S. policy of public pressure is very likely to increase local resistance to change, whoever is in charge. This policy approximated an all-stick, no-carrot approach that fared little better than the Bush administration's opposite extreme.

The Obama administration is trying to mend its relationship with Karzai. But a return to carrots without sticks would merely replicate past failures.

What is needed is a tack toward the center, with a balance of public incentives and private pressure. The underlying problem is tough enough that neither sticks nor carrots alone will suffice. Afghanistan is misgoverned partly because officials lack skills and resources but largely because they benefit from an unrepresentative distribution of resources. They prefer this, and will not change simply because Americans want reform and offer training and mentoring. An all-carrot approach creates better-trained miscreants with bigger aid budgets to direct to their friends. Carrots must be combined with sticks big enough to change officials' real interest calculus. But threats and demands must be quiet and private, lest they create self-defeating pushback from officials who must resist to avoid looking weak.

In principle the United States enjoys tremendous leverage for an integrated sticks-and-carrots approach. The international community does thousands of things every day in Afghanistan, and the Karzai government depends on this assistance for survival. Any of these things can be a source of leverage if their provision is quietly made contingent on specific reforms. Particular aid programs can be accelerated or slowed; training and mentoring can be expanded or contracted; logistical support can be provided or withheld for particular units at certain places and times; visas can be granted or denied; the possibilities are nearly endless. Adroitly used, they offer the raw material for a powerful realignment of incentives for governance in Afghanistan.

If Karzai's government were more effective, then perhaps such sticks and carrots would be unnecessary. But to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you wage counterinsurgency with the partner you have. To succeed will require changing that partner's incentives for governance -- as it normally does in counterinsurgency. A more balanced, less schizophrenic approach could go a long way in Afghanistan.

The writer is the Roger Hertog senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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