Karzai’s Choice*

March 2, 2007

President Karzai is famous for his penchant to sidestep thorny issues and controversial decisions. Whenever possible, the rule of the presidential thumb has been to leave alone those decisions that could potentially antagonize allies or enemies -or anybody under the sun. (Well, save for Pakistan.) Such enviable political savviness has endeared Mr. Karzai with a motley crew that includes a large, cross-ethnic mass of Afghanistan’s population, a divided West separated by a gulf as big as the Atlantic ocean, and Afghanistan’s worlords who were sworn enemies of each other just a few years back.

If Mr. Karzai were to have his own show on primetime television in America, it would be called “Everybody Loves Hamid.”

Alas, easy times always come to an end. And for Mr. Karzai, the time of reckoning seems to have arrived. After the infamous “Amnesty Bill” (officially christened the “National Reconciliation Law”) swept through both the lower and upper houses of Afghanistan’s parliament with uncharacteristic efficiency, the onus is now on the president to decide whether he signs the bill into law or not. And Mr. Karzai’s preferred course of action in matters as inflammatory as this (that is, to steer clear of the entire damn thing) seems just not to be an option here.

Not signing the bill into law would amount to, well, not signing the bill into law. However spun, the undeniable fact will remain that Mr. Karzai sided with the people against the warlords. And of all people, Mr. Karzai knows best that he owes the initial honeymoon period of his presidency to the appeased pacifism of his warlord friends. He knows better than to antagonize them now with the country already in bad shape for a number of other reasons.

On the other hand, the president cannot simply sign the bill into law either. I am tempted to say that it goes against his principles, but we all know that politicians and leaders rarely afford the luxury of keeping lofty principles. The more immediate concern is that it goes against his electorate’s preferences. Besides, while the West has been understanding in the past of Mr. Karzai’s wheeler-dealer politics and appeasement of the warlords, something this big cannot be simply swept under the rug.

The grapevine has it that Mr. Karzai has now tasked his team of legal aides to find technical grounds on which he could send the bill back to the parliament and thereby buy time. In the meantime, both proponents and opponents of the law have made their cases with demonstrations and rallies, most notably the recent commemoration of Afshar massacres of ’92 (which this writer and family barely escaped) and a subsequent rally under the Jihad banner in support of the warlords.

Damned if he does, damned if he does not, Mr. Karzai faces the most important decision of his term, and one that is bound leave a lasting impact on his legacy as a president, and on Afghanistan’s history.


Inspired by the title of William Styron’s novel “Sophie’s Choice,” now an idiom: “A ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is a tragic choice between two unbearable options.” (def. from Wikipedia)