Do We Want a Stable Democracy in Afghanistan–Or Just a Short Term Ally to Fight the Taliban?

Neil Wollman and Abdulhadi Hairan

In late March, President Obama paid a surprise visit to Kabul to meet his Afghan counterpart, reportedly asking Karzai to improve governance reform to combat corruption. Since then, the two governments have exchanged jabs.

Karzai has been openly defiant of U.S. concerns, specifically election reform in the wake of a presidential election widely considered fraudulent, and has charged foreign interference in elections. The U.S. has focused on his decrees eliminating UN participants on the Election Complaint Commission (which was followed by a partial retreat).

The reaction by the Afghan Parliament has been mixed, with the Karzai-dominated upper house supporting his decrees and the lower house rejecting them. In March, Karzai told a UN representative that by mid-April there would be a “major and constructive reshuffle of the election commission,” and he did dismiss the head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC).

Most recently, Karzai and the UN worked out a compromise that makes some positive changes in personnel and procedure that will improve election governance, and which has brought the UN and donor nations on board to fund the September parliamentary elections. However, there are complaints from Afghan opposition leaders and some in parliament who say that the reforms are not sufficient. And likely were only enough to win international funding for the election.

What is known is that widespread corruption, going far beyond just elections, is destroying Afghan society. It continues to undermine efforts by the international community and Afghans to promote democracy, security, and nation-building, and to fight narcotics trafficking. The Karzai administration has dismissed any mention of corruption, labeling it as “foreign meddling.”

But in Kandahar recently, Karzai heard the same complaints from his home town and tribe. There to solicit cooperation for the upcoming major military operation against the insurgents, Karzai was told by a tribal elder that his government was as much a problem for local people as were the insurgents. Afghan citizens interviewed by the second author of this piece said that the government is a problem on all levels–-from top ministers and advisers to local employees.

Corruption, nepotism, and the rule of warlords is badly affecting the Afghan people and their hopes for the future. It was not until Karzai’s fraudulent election victory that the issue of corruption in Afghanistan was thrust into the global spotlight and the Obama administration felt compelled to speak out. The question is, how willing is the U.S. to confront the issue?

There are at least two possible paths here for the Obama administration, and signals indicate that it is opting for a short term strategy that is more expedient, but a recipe for long-term failure. It appears Obama has chosen not to push for reform, preferring not to rock the boat. He needs Karzai’s cooperation in fighting the Taliban and in using U.S. and NATO forces to defeat the insurgents—eventually enabling the U.S. President to meet a policy goal and withdraw U.S. troops without losing face.

Recent statements by top level Administration officials echo the assertion that Karzai is the head of a sovereign state and that he has been a loyal ally. And now the hot rhetoric between the two countries has ended. Presumably, then, especially with some give by Karzai on election reform, the U.S. will give only lip service to the need for changes in Afghan governance, hoping there is enough popular dislike of the Taliban and military fire-power to succeed.

Even if successful–not a given–this path will very likely result in a resurgence of the Taliban later, as occurred following the first U.S. effort to finish them off. For whatever military victory is achieved now will be lost in the future because of the lack of popular support for a corrupt Afghan administration. When that happens, will the U.S. be ready to fight the Taliban for a third time if it feels that it is in its strategic interest? Would there be any stomach for such a war among the U.S. public, even among those who would feel it is morally justified?

Can the U.S. push Karzai for reform? This risks alienating him, but on the other hand Karzai is beholden to U.S. forces to remain in power. The Obama administration could pressure (not abandon) Karzai to make changes and could work with the international community, the UN, and sympathetic Afghan parliament members and citizen groups to truly reduce the systemic corruption. It would help to accompany this with a foreign aid program to help build strong Afghan educational, economic, and political infrastructures. Such a comprehensive effort, which is less costly than an ongoing war, would likely ensure a government which is supported by Afghans, who would, then, surely reject the harmful Taliban for good.

Foreign interference in another government’s internal politics should always be suspect, but in this case it is the lesser of two evils. It is the right path for Obama to take for both moral and political reasons. Currently, it does not look like the U.S. will take the gamble to push for real change in Afghanistan. We hope we are wrong.

PsySR member Neil Wollman is a Senior Fellow of the Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility at Bentley University in Waltham, MA. He can be reached at NWollman@Bentley.edu. Abdulhadi Hairan is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS) in Kabul and a
Project Analyst at Pajhwok Afghan News, also in Kabul. An abbreviated version of this essay appeared earlier this month in the Boston Herald.

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