US & World

In Afghanistan, U.S. Success Depends On Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (C) passes an honour guard as he arrives for his swearing in ceremony as the country's president for another five years at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on November 19, 2009.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (C) passes an honour guard as he arrives for his swearing in ceremony as the country's president for another five years at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on November 19, 2009.

Listen to story

Download this story 4.0MB

There are many hurdles in Afghanistan as President Obama deploys thousands of additional U.S. troops. In the first of a five-part series, we look at one of the biggest challenges: the government in Kabul. Will President Hamid Karzai reduce corruption and provide better services for his people?

One of the primary elements of the Obama administration's new strategy in Afghanistan is a stable government in Kabul. The United States needs a reliable partner so that programs and policies can be implemented.

Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was inaugurated in an elaborate ceremony with an array of foreign diplomats in attendance.

But that didn't mask the fact that Karzai's second — and under the constitution, his final — term as president was being ushered in after a messy and fraudulent election that has left lingering questions about his legitimacy.

"President Karzai is not an elected president; he was declared winner by the Independent Election Commission," says Haroun Mir, director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, a think tank in Kabul. Members of the commission were named by Karzai.

Mir says Karzai's new administration suffers from a crisis of credibility. "President Karzai knows that he's in a very, very weak position."

Mir says Karzai needs to do better — for his own good and for the country. "He knows that there is no alternative for Afghanistan," Mir says. "If he fails, with him the Afghan people will fail and the international community will fail."

An Uneasy Partnership

The international community may not like how Karzai ended up back in power, but it has to work with him. The United States and Britain in particular have regularly admonished Karzai — both in private and in public — for not taking steps to stop the country's downward spiral.

During his inauguration speech, Karzai seemed to say all the words his audience wanted to hear, promising to stamp out rampant corruption and the flourishing drug trade, pull together an inclusive government and provide security and services to the people.

Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, says it all sounded good. But he says Karzai may be a bit like the boy who cried wolf once too often.

"People are ... not counting on what the president said in the inaugural speech because they've seen so much of that, promises in the form of speech," Nadery says. "Now they're very much looking carefully at how he delivers."

The United States is also watching what Karzai delivers. Washington has renewed its demands on Karzai to show progress. The Obama administration believes a strong and credible government will help instill trust in the people and make them less likely to side with the Taliban.

Analysts say there are some immediate steps Karzai could take to show his resolve, such as indicting senior officials for corruption or drug trafficking.

A Limited Reach

Another critical test for Karzai will come with the influx of tens of thousands of additional American troops.

The surge ordered by President Obama will bring total U.S. forces in Afghanistan to about 100,000 and provide Karzai a chance to see if he can provide enough Afghan soldiers to partner with U.S. troops — a key provision in the new Obama strategy.

Once areas have been cleared of militants, it's up to Karzai's administration to build local governance.

Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, says this will be difficult for Karzai, whose reach extends only so far.

"Unfortunately, Mr. Karzai has become — you know, in the epithets of many Afghans, he's known as the 'mayor of Kabul.' He has been unable to really get out because of the security risks."

Rondeaux says if Karzai cannot travel beyond Kabul, he can't truly gauge the needs in Afghanistan's provinces. "He won't have any input from the outside. He'll always be dependent on his sort of inner circle at ... the palace in Kabul to read the picture for him," she says.

Rondeaux says that can be very dangerous. "There are lots of Rasputins running around the Kabul palace right now," she says, referring to the Russian political figure often blamed for discrediting the Romanov dynasty ahead of the Bolshevik revolution.

Local Efforts

District and provincial councils can't pick up where the central authority fails because of the way the government is set up, says Nadery with the Human Rights Commission.

"There are serious problems in the way the government is structured. It's very top-down and it paralyzes and delays and slows a lot of decision-making at the local level," he says.

The city of Jalalabad, the seat of Nangarhar province, is just a two-hour drive east of the capital. Lacking representative local leaders and suffering a wide gap between rich and poor, the province represents a familiar pattern in Afghanistan.

As in all other provinces, Nangarhar's governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, is appointed by the president, rather than elected by the people — which means the only person to whom the governor is accountable sits in the palace in Kabul.

There is a lot of money in the area from mining and import duties from the nearby border with Pakistan. Nangarhar is purported to have more millionaires than any other province in Afghanistan. Sherzai is among them.

There is enormous poverty in the area, too. There are many beggars on the streets and few obvious public services. The bureaucracy — from the local council to Kabul — slows or altogether prevents programs from being carried out.

Mullahjahn Shinwareh, a tall, grim-faced provincial councilor in Jalalabad, says there needs to be change. Local government in Afghanistan needs more autonomy, he says.

So Shinwareh is embarking on a program without waiting for Kabul's approval. He and councilors from three surrounding provinces are organizing a jirga — a meeting of elders — to talk with members of the Taliban in the area.

Shinwareh says the jirga will not deal with extremists or al-Qaida, just moderates who are willing to negotiate. The elders will ask them what they need. If the program is successful, they will try to extend it to other provinces.

Shinwareh says this is something the central government should be doing.

'A Very Heavy Responsibility'

But the government in Kabul hasn't laid out a detailed plan for the country and seems to do everything piecemeal — often implementing programs or policies only after a push from Washington, according to Western diplomats.

Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament from Kabul, says the United States and others need to understand there are limits to the Afghan government's abilities, and that the international community may be asking too much of the Karzai government in too little time.

"This is really a very heavy responsibility on our weak shoulders," she says.

The Afghan government wants the U.S. to help until the country can stand on its own, Barakzai says. "It's like we are lost on our way from where we should start first."

Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban, the U.S. and other nations have made it clear their collective patience with the Karzai government is running out. But with no cohesive opposition, and no new political leaders on the horizon, the international community will have to continue to deal with a flawed but vital partner. Copyright 2009 National Public Radio. To see more, visit