Perceived as ineffective and corrupt, the Afghan president faces an uphill battle to reelection.
October 23, 2008, Kabul, Afghanistan – Hajji Mohammed Aman sits in the half-light of his west Kabul real estate office and makes a demand of his president.
“When you decide to do something, you have to do it, even if it costs you your life,” he says, firmly but without bluster.
The comment hints at why the country that once chose President Hamid Karzai to lead it into a new, democratic future is now turning against him. Both at home and abroad, Mr. Karzai is facing mounting criticism that he has lacked the courage to stop the government’s descent into corruption and ineffectiveness.
Karzai’s international allies are increasingly unwilling to accept inaction, and with presidential elections a year away, the man who once had an 83 percent approval rating now finds himself politically isolated and needing to resuscitate his image.
“Things are out of his control now,” says Farooq Mirranay, a member of parliament who supported Karzai in the 2004 elections and remains a part of the Karzai’s legislative bloc.
As the West begins to pay more attention to the worsening state of law and order in Afghanistan, pressure on Karzai is growing. His decision on Oct. 11 to reshuffle his cabinet has widely been seen as an effort to placate international allies demanding progress against corruption.
“It’s taken him two years to do it,” says Ahmed Rashid, author of “Descent into Chaos,” a book about US efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.
Also this month, officials in the Bush administration alleged that Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali, is involved in the opium trade, according to the New York Times. The Karzais have denied the charge.
Despite this dissatisfaction with the Afghan government’s lack of progress under Karzai, there is no clear replacement. A study by the Congressional Research Service recently tabbed former Interior Minister Ali Jalali and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani as the most likely contenders for Karzai’s job. Mr. Ghani, who was a member of the mujahideen government that ruled during Afghanistan’s disastrous civil war, has the greater name recognition. Mr. Jalali is seen by many in the international community as a competent technocrat, but he is currently living in the United States and would have trouble connecting with Afghans.
Rumors also continue to circle that America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, is considering a run. He has repeatedly denied this.
There has been no recent opinion poll to measure Karzai’s approval rating. Yet interviews throughout Kabul point to a widely held perception: that Karzai has surrounded himself by thieves and drug lords. This has turned many Afghans against him.
For this reason, Mr. Mirranay says he will not campaign for Karzai again.
“He never took measures against corrupt officials,” he says. “The government is built on compromises and deals.”
With voter registration having already begun, it is a statement that presages the tone of the coming campaign. But there is at least a kernel of truth in it, say some analysts of Afghanistan, with Karzai governing almost as a tribal leader, seeing every situation as an opportunity for negotiation.
“He was always faced with the problem of indecisiveness,” says Mr. Rashid, citing the delayed cabinet shuffle as a typical example of how Karzai has often attempted to skirt difficult choices.
In light of the problems facing Afghanistan, this lack of a strong hand has led to frustration. Afghans’ complaints are bitter. Between a resurgent Taliban and NATO airstrikes, more civilians are being killed as security worsens. Militants are now ambushing military convoys just outside Kabul.
Meanwhile, Afghans say they must pay bribes to pass police checkpoints or even to pay their taxes. The flourishing opium trade has further alienated Afghans, who assume government complicity. More than half the country’s economy is based on opium.
But these are not all problems of Karzai’s making.
“Karzai cannot govern without security, and security is not in his hands,” says Mr. Rashid, the author, suggesting that NATO still has not sent enough troops.
It points to the constant balancing act that he must play. Karzai must not be seen as favoring any one of Afghanistan’s tribes or ethnicities – which are often at odds with one another – and he must also negotiate the desires of some three dozen member-nations of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
In addition to this, America largely ignored Afghanistan until this year, focusing its efforts predominantly on Iraq. “There was a failure to set tougher conditions for the government early on,” says Rashid. “A great deal depends on what the next US president does.”
Shagufa Amiryar, a political science student at Kabul University, has some sympathy for Karzai. She begins by blaming, not Karzai, but Pakistan and Iran for sponsoring and harboring terrorists. But then she begins talking about poppy barons building mansions in Kabul’s best neighborhoods.
“If [Karzai] tries his best, he can prevent drug dealers from walking freely,” she says.
The fact that he has not upsets fellow student Iqbal Ali Sharwand. “When President Karzai first came people had hopes,” he says. “But after the elections people’s hopes were dashed because he is only working to keep his power rather than thinking of the people’s interests.”
Squatting on packets of cement he is selling, Hajji Hasan Qurbanzadeh says, “Even if you appoint me mayor of Kabul, I will become involved in corruption.”