Karzai’s Backroom Deal

May 31, 2004

Finally it turns out to be true: something I had feared for a long time; hoped and prayed would not be true; and whenever I had heard suggestions to the effect from friends I had actively shunned them. If I were in Afghanistan right now-and I am eligible to vote- President Karzai can be sure that he has at least lost my vote. I just hope that this is the case with more of my compatriots; that they refuse to be taken for a ride by a leader who is so hungry for power and so keen on staying on as President that he has broken promises, backtracked on his words, and forfeited the trust and hopes of the people; and by his new allies who have by dint of past experience proven themselves to be not only incompetent, but criminal.
This weeks news of the backroom deal between Karzai and the ‘Mujahideen’ on powersharing comes as a shock to me for many reasons. But on closer inspection, it seemed that requisits of opportunism and power politics dictated this move. First off, why Karzai felt he had to do such a thing especially after ruling out any type of coalition government merely a year ago? (And that news had come as a relief to many who were wary that he might fall for the trap of the warlords again). This move of his bears considerable political risk both inside the country as people are growing mistrustful, and outside as the international community view these deals -that in effect negate the Bonn process- with much suspicion. Karzai’s biggest ally, the US, is also not particularly keen about a deal with the warlords. So what were Karzai’s motives?
The old adage that ‘power corrupts’ comes to mind. In the beginning when our charming president with his relatively unbloodied hands rose to power, he was admired both country-wide and worldwide. Inside Afghanistan, he was seen as a figure unlike the shady Jihadis who had murdured, looted, pillaged, raped, and gotten away with it all. He was seen as a figure of change, a voice of reason. This political weight inside boosted his case in the international community, who also saw in him a much better choice than any viable alternatives. He was a moderate Muslim, appointed women and minorities to his cabinet, and dressed in an attire that represented North, South, West, and East of the country -and that won the admiration of Tom Ford of Gucci for the ‘most chic man in the world today’. His popularity inside, combined with his favored status in the international community and the vast powers given to him under the Bonn process seem to have finally worked their magic on the President. In the Constitutional Loya Jirga of December 2003 the President came under accusations that he and a team of cohorts were calling for wide and unchecked executive powers, with the assumption now clear that he would occupy that seat in 2004. Afterwards, he was said to have a ‘special cabinent’ within his wider cabinet of ministers; disturbingly, one that was comprised of ethnic Pashtoon ministers. The decision to single-handedly fire the Minister of Planning as a result of his trifle with the ethnic Pashtoon Minister of Finance proved to many the truth in these accusations. Then he started making overtures to the Pashtoon-dominated ‘Hizb-e-Islami’, a Jihadi group whose leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is now wanted by the US as a terrorist. Next, he made the distinction of ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’ and warmly invited the ‘good’ ones into his government (Taliban ranks are overwhelmingly comprised of ethnic Pashtoons). In all these he seems to have had the implicit approval of the American plenipotentiary and ambassador in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, a Pashtoon himself. The overall results of these overtures to the Pashtoons seems to have been little in terms of appeasing them into accepting Karzai’s government -immensely unpopular in the Pashtoon East and South of the country-, and great in terms of alienating people of other ethnic groups in the country who saw him as bringing the centuries old Pashtoon domination of the government. The next option remaining seemed to be that of using military force. Shockingly, Karzai resorted to this last tool as well: in Herat and in Faryab he deployed central government troops against Tajik and Uzbek troops of warlords Ismail Khan and General Dostom respectively -both ventures ending in utter failure, largely because of popular uprisings who saw Karzai not so much as curbing the warlords, but bringing the areas under Kabul’s Pashtoon-dominated rule. What really drove the whole thing home for Karzai was the fact that in the voter registration drive the Pashtoon South seemed to have boycotted the whole process while in the Center and North the now-alienated eligible voters registered by tens of thousands.
Faced with these failures, and with a virtual credibility crisis with much of the country’s voting population, and with the election deadlines set under the Bonn agreement fast approaching, Karzai started damage control. To buy time, he first delayed the elections by four months, to September of 2004. It now becomes clear why he needed more time, all the while he had been preparing and negotiating with the Mujahideen regarding the deal that surfaced this week. Next, to place his opponents in election -candidates including a women, the ousted ethnic Hazara Minister of Planning, and an intellectual returning from exile- he first delayed the signing and ratification of the electoral law, and then included blatantly exclusive terms for candidacy, including one that effectively negates the constitution’s provision for voting through secret ballot.
This week’s deal with the Mujahideen is just another move to guarantee him Presidency in the next elections. He is hoping to win through the active support of warlords who control much of the country, and who could otherwise put forth a candidate of their own against him. The sad fact is that in Afghanistan politics still remains factionalized along party lines -not any party: Jihadi parties- and along ethnic lines. In simple terms this means that if Warlord ‘X’ of Party ‘X’ who represents an ethnicity ‘X’ and rules -by force- an area ‘X’ approves of and supports Karzai’s candidacy, then people of the same area ‘X’ who are largely ethnic ‘X’-s and belong -either by ethnic loyalties or pressure- to the Jihadi party ‘X’ and live in the region ‘X’ ruled and terrorized by ‘X’ will mostly likely cast their votes for Karzai. What is important to note here is that a victory in the elections should not please Mr. Karzai a lot. He knows how he has won, and he can be sure it is not because people really wanted him to win. He would not have their trust and their support. He would have the Presidential palace, and remain the warlord of Kabul. But he would have forfeited the favor of the people and the international community -and he would remember his liability before he ever again asks the warlords to lay down their arms or submit to his rule. The warlords will be the final winners, and in some sense the power-hungry Mr. Karzai as well. The ultimate losers, once again, will be the ordinary people of Afghanistan. One thinks, not without a ting of malice, that by now it does not matter; they are used to it anyways.
But I think it’s hearbreakingly sad…


May 17, 2004

The success of the process of DDR (Disarmement, Demoblization, and Reintegration) is seen by the United Nations and the wider circle of Afghan analysts as well as by ordinary people of Afghanistan as key to a smooth transition to democracy and rule of law. It was initially hoped that all the militias belonging to regional warlords and different political parties hand over their weapons to the central government, disband, and be integrated into civilian life by undergoing vocational training or other programs. Already late on the deadline -like many other things on the central government’s list of things to do, including the ratification of the electoral law and voters registration- the DDR seems now to be the victim of another affliction characteristic of Afghan politics: lately there has been news that some militias loyal to the defense minister will get to keep their precious toys and fall under the umbrella of a security apparatus that will help the NATO/ISAF’s security assistance mission.
It sounds great, but it takes just a glance at this history of those same troops and the atrocities that they -like most other militia groups in Afghanistan- have committed to anticipate the troubles ahead. For one, this move will be received by many around the country as an exceptionalist gesture, and thereby undermine the process of disarmament as rival militia point fingers at the defense ministry’s militias who got to keep their weapons. Significantly, this is not a totally irrelevant concern in Afghanistan where ethnic hegemony and brutal suppression of members of one ethnic group by another has been so prevalent historically that it justifies caution.
That leaves the central government and the international community with a major task on their hands: to succeed in Afghanistan, it is important to enforce an across-the-board disarmament that gives exception to no one. This is important for the credibility of the process, and for the longevity of future peace and stability; and it ensures that militias of one ethnic group will not have the power -many might still have the will- to brutalize and suppress others.