Karzai’s “Re-election” May Be the End of the Afghan Mission

November 2, 2009     
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“Karzai must be replaced by a local option”

The entire foreign mission in Afghanistan may have reached a tipping point following the so-called re-election of President Karzai. For years, the international mission in Afghanistan has struggled with a crisis of both resources and legitimacy. With the recent decision of the USA to increase its resource commitment, the first of these problems may be resolved.

However, the second problem of legitimacy may overwhelm all others unless radical change occurs quickly. President Karzai has no natural constituency in Afghanistan and no large cadre of committed followers. His ability to positively influence events does not reach past the outer suburbs of Kabul.

Having served in uniform in Bosnia and Croatia, I have seen the limits of what can be done when the intervening force has limited credibility. In order for a foreign supported counterinsurgency campaign to be effective, the local population needs to believe that the “legitimate” option of government will be an improvement over the “insurgents.” Few Afghans want to see a return to the Taliban, but the governing records of the international community and President Karzai are so poor that the Taliban looks like a reasonable alternative.

While I was working in Singapore in 2006, one of my Afghan colleagues was relating a tale of woe concerning his home district. The local police chief had been replaced and the local population had been momentarily hopeful that conditions might improve. However, they soon discovered that the new police chief was a personal appointment of the “government” in far away Kabul. His primary qualification as the new district Chief of Police was that he had served as a valet to a government leader in Kabul. This is just one small story among thousands, but the narrative of this story is common across the whole land.

Karzai must either be replaced or he must be seen to undergo a magical transformation to the point where he is seen as credible. The idea of such a transformation, however, is so fanciful as to be unbelievable. Without a credible government in place, the new counter insurgency forces will be working to support an unachievable objective. Now, a new leader must now emerge from the debris heap of the last election. A local option, chosen through back room manoeuvring combined with traditional methods, would be preferable to a foreign installed option whose election campaign was declared a fraud by those now stuck with the unenviable task of supporting him.

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