In the Arena

Today in Afghanistan

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Max Boot makes some good points along the way to an extremely faulty conclusion in his Washington Post op-ed piece supporting Hamid Karzai as President of Afghanistan today. The good points are essentially strawmen, though. He’s absolutely right that the United States shouldn’t try to remove Karzai from office, as we did Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam–but then, no one is talking about that. He’s also absolutely right that the United States should not push an opposition candidate in the coming Afghan elections, even though there are several who might be better qualified than Karzai. The elections have to be seen, by Afghans, as untainted–but again, I don’t see any hint that the U.S. will support an opposition candidate either overtly or covertly.

Where Boot goes wrong is to compare Karzai to Iraqi President Nouri al-Malaki, who was seen as a weak link when Iraq was in chaos and seems a stronger link now. First of all, it’s perilous to compare Afghanistan to any other place–and particularly Iraq. As General David Petraeus has found in the course of his policy review, Afghanistan is vastly poorer than Iraq, with extremely low rates of literacy outside the major cities; it also lacks even Iraq’s tenuous and recent history of central control. It is an agglomeration of valleys and tribes, with little to hold it together. 

Also, Maliki was not nearly as corrupt as Karzai seems to be. According to the U.S. military, Karzai allies run shadow governments in the two main opium producing provinces. In Helmand, the Karzai operative is a former governor who was caught in possession of nine tons of opium. In Kandahar, it is Karzai’s brother. But the corruption extends well beyond the poppy crop. There’s also the case of the 5,000 missing policemen. My host in Afghanistan, the NATO Commander Egon Rommes, was horrified by the fact that the funding for these officers simply evaporated. In another case, a former employee at the Ministry of Finance told me that she had found a $350,000 payoff written into a government contract.

Boot insists that providing security should take top priority. But the Taliban resurgence has grown on the hatred that average Afghans have for the Karzai government’s arrogance and corruption. That doesn’t mean that we should overthrow Karzai, but we definitely need to make clear that the Bush Administration’s lack of rigorous oversight has come to end. Every penny the international community sends to Karzai will be closely monitored, and a great many pennies will be rerouted to local Afghan authorities and programs like the National Unity project, which funds development schemes based on the priorities of the village elders (including the tribal leaders). 

There will be a need for greater and more effective military action, probably on both sides of the Af/Pak border, but those who say that Afghanistan can simply be cured by another surge–as John McCain did during the campaign–have no idea what they’re talking about.