´The dangers of Karzai´s re-election´, Tomas Valasek

The dangers of Karzai´s re-election

by Tomas Valasek, 10 September 2009

The final result of the Afghan election may not be known until the end of September, but it looks as if President Hamid Karzai will have done well enough to avoid a second round of voting. This is causing dismay in some western capitals, where some senior figures now view Karzai as a key obstacle to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. If he stays in power, people in many European countries are likely to become increasingly disenchanted with the ‘mission impossible’ that their soldiers are undertaking, and that would increase the probability of European forces being withdrawn.

A senior UK diplomat recently described the problems posed by Karzai’s government for western attempts to reconstruct Afghanistan. “Our game plan is to use foreign troops to create enough breathing room for the Afghan government to assert its authority throughout the country,” he said. “But if the government whose authority we help to assert is widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent, we have no chance of succeeding.”

Karzai’s government has earned its inglorious reputation for several reasons. Washington suspects that some of its top officials are involved in the drug trade, including the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, as well as the defence minister, Karzai’s running mate and the potential future vice-president, Mohammad Fahim. Corruption extends downwards through the bureaucracy. Western troops say that many Afghan policemen steal valuables during searches of houses. Local leaders complain they have very little effort from the Kabul government to rebuild roads or resuscitate the economy; it is the western governments and NGOs that deliver the little progress that there is.

In his early years as president, Karzai offered hope for a new future and was genuinely popular. In 2005, 83 per cent of Afghans approved of president Karzai and 80 per cent approved of the national government overall. Today those figures have dropped to 52 and 49 per cent, respectively. Those are still solid numbers that some western leaders would envy. But the support has been on a constant slide for the past four years because more and more Afghans have given up hope that the current government will deliver stability or prosperity.

The US, the UK and other key troop-contributing governments worry that a Karzai victory heavily tainted by allegations of fraud will further disappoint the Afghans and embolden the Taliban. And in the western countries that send the troops his re-election could also fatally undermine public support for the mission. The latest opinion polls show that about two-thirds of Britons want UK troops out of the country – not only because of rising casualties, but also because of the perception that Afghan politicians are using their authority, which rests on the support of western troops, for self-enrichment.

The US, for now, has little choice but to stay put. The US public is as fidgety as that in Britain but President Obama has made success in Afghanistan a key plank of his foreign policy and he will not want to give up so soon. The US may send more troops if General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, requests reinforcements.

The situation is different in other NATO allies. The Dutch are scheduled to leave next year, and the Canadians say they will withdraw in 2011, though NATO is working hard to get both governments to change their mind. That may prove impossible unless events in Afghanistan give the public some reason to believe that NATO is managing to turn around its flagging mission. Even the British presence cannot be taken as guaranteed, if public support for it continues to slide.

The prospect of European troops departing brings two risks. One is to the security of Afghanistan itself. Together, the UK, Canada and the Netherlands supply the bulk of the troops that keep a semblance of order in three of the volatile southern provinces (though the US is reinforcing its presence in the south). NATO and the EU are busy training new Afghan soldiers and police to replace the western troops. But on the evidence of the past few years, the central government is unlikely to have enough properly trained replacements to take over from the Europeans anytime soon. Some local Afghan leaders say that if the Europeans withdraw in the next year or two, they will leave the country too, or strike deals with the Taliban. Either way, the government in Kabul would lose out. The second risk is to NATO itself. Why should Washington take the alliance seriously if it finds itself manning the ramparts in Afghanistan alone?

To prevent European support for the war in Afghanistan from collapsing, the governments need to take two steps. First, those capitals that have done little to drum up public support for the mission need to step up. In the UK, Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a major ‘why we fight’ speech on September 4th. More effort of this sort is needed. Second, assuming that Karzai is declared the victor, the West needs to find ways of making clear to is government that it needs to do more to fight corruption. This could include withholding EU and national aid from the most corrupt parts of the Afghan government.

Getting the Kabul government to change its ways will not be easy: when the US special representative, Richard Holbrooke, recently suggested that Afghanistan might have to deal with complaints of ballot-rigging by holding a second round of elections, Karzai walked out of the meeting; he later told a French newspaper that the US wanted him to be more “docile”. But the European governments and Washington are right to try. The government in Kabul and its western partners need to find ways of changing the perception that the Karzai government is failing, or public pressure may force European troops to withdraw sooner than is good for the country.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.
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10-IX-09, CER