Blaming Karzai for the West’s failures
It is not the Afghan PM’s corruption that has wrecked Afghanistan, but the disarray of the invading powers.
The Obama administration’s policy framework for a ‘new strategy’ for Afghanistan has been widely discussed in the run-up to a special conference on Afghanistan at The Hague at the end of March. This policy shift has been talked up by Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as a ‘vastly restructured effort’, concerned with focusing on the civilian side and addressing the mistakes of the previous Bush administration and its European allies (1).
The focus of media discussion has been on the failures of previous international attempts to restructure and strengthen the Afghan state, particularly the overreliance on Afghan president Hamid Karzai, increasingly seen as too willing to compromise with opponents and too corrupt (2). There is a widespread determination amongst European governments simply to replace Karzai with someone else. However, the problems facing the leading Western powers, which have effectively been running Afghanistan since the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, are those of their own making, not Karzai’s.
The lack of visible progress in Afghanistan, in terms of the security situation or in political, economic or social improvements, has meant that the US and European governments find it extremely difficult to justify their ‘mission’ there. This problem is acutely felt by European governments, such as the UK, that have stressed the ‘vital importance’ of Afghanistan while attempting to distance themselves from the US-led war and occupation of Iraq.
The lack of Western policy solutions for Afghanistan’s governmental authority, or its people’s security and welfare, can be sold as a ‘success’ by Obama, through, in part, presenting the scaling down of expectations as a response to European imperial hubris. Obama is able to present the renouncing of international responsibility for transforming the Afghan state as a shift away from the European-led policy framework of reconstruction and statebuilding in Afghanistan.
Obama’s ‘anti-imperialism’ not only juxtaposes his administration to the policy failures of Bush; it also implicates the EU states, which talked up the mission of post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan as one which, while being related to the war on terror, was more concerned with development, social welfare, women’s rights and democratisation (3).
The possibility to pose US policy as a critique of European misjudgements was only viable once Obama had taken Iraq off the international policy agenda, with the promise of US military withdrawal. It was the US-led war and occupation of Iraq which pushed the EU to give Afghanistan greater policy emphasis, portraying it in terms of an EU projection of ‘ethical foreign policy’ in contradistinction to the US’s discredited occupation of Iraq.
The EU’s promise to transform Afghanistan stood clearly exposed as hubris once it lacked the moral counterpoint of the US debacle in Iraq. In comparison to the European claims of transforming Afghanistan into a beacon of human rights, the rule of law and development, Obama’s desire to narrow the focus to preventing al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for operations seems to be a rational and manageable goal.
The Obama administration is also looking to turn failure into success at the level of attempts to strengthen the Afghan state. The contradictory approaches to external engagement, which have undermined central authority and encouraged regional power-brokers, is being represented as a new, much more attainable, policy goal of ‘decentralisation’ (see Britain’s key weapon in Afghanistan: the bribe, and Why Karzai was right to reject Ashdown).
If necessary, it appears that this shift away from dealing directly with Kabul will be given the Afghan government’s seal of approval by formally downsizing Karzai’s presidential authority and the creation of a prime ministerial position (4).
The scaling back of international aspirations is represented as necessary because of widespread corruption and nepotism at the level of the central state administration. It is not just that ‘Karzai is not delivering’, as one headline put it; there is also the certainty that any alternative would be no better: ‘No one could be sure that someone else would not turn out to be 10 times worse. It is not a great position.’ (5)
For the Obama administration, the shift towards recognising the reality of state fragmentation is presented as a struggle to minimise state corruption and incompetence. The winding down of Western government and international institutional attempts to statebuild and ‘democratise’ Afghanistan becomes, rather, a greater desire to develop good governance, transparency and decentralised authority: a progressive ‘new division of responsibilities, between central power and local power’ (6).
Obama can make the most of the disarray and the loss of policy coherence behind international statebuilding interventions. Despite the rhetoric around the need to support or to rebuild ‘weak’ or ‘failing’ states, both in terms of addressing international security concerns and humanitarian issues, there appears to be a complete lack of policy direction, making this policy shift a straightforward one.
There is some irony in the fact that the ‘new agenda’ of the Obama administration appears little different than Karzai’s attempt to maintain good relations with regional power-brokers. While for Obama and his European allies, this is a matter of good governance and ‘capacity-building’, Karzai is made into the fall guy, accused of corruption and mismanagement in his attempts to broker political deals with regional ‘tribal leaders’ or ‘warlords’ (7).
The ‘new division of responsibilities’ is not new; it is merely a recognition of existing policies and a denial of Western responsibility for reshaping the institutions of the Afghan state. Promoting this in the language of ‘anti-imperialism’, ‘anti-corruption’ and ‘decentralisation’ may be crucial for the presentation of this shift, but it is the exhaustion of Western policy frameworks which explains why the Taliban is increasingly being feted with offers of political party recognition and government posts (8).
David Chandler is Professor of International Relations at the University of Westminster. Visit his website here. He is the editor of the Journal of Statebuilding and Intervention. His next book, Hollow Hegemony: Rethinking Global Politics, Power and Resistance, will be published by Pluto Press later this year.
Previously on spiked
David Chandler argued that in Britain’s theatrical war against the Taliban British troops were definitely not fighting the good fight. Elsewhere, he asserted that Britain’s key weapon in Afghanistan was the bribe. Philip Cunliffe reviewed David Chandler’s book Empire in Denial, and looked at the atrophy of foreign policy today. Or read more at
spiked issue War on Terror.
(1) US will appoint Afghan ‘prime minister’ to bypass Hamid Karzai, Guardian, 22 March 2009
(2) Afghanistan: New tactics, same strategy?, BBC News, 23 March 2009
(3) See, for example, European Commission, Country Strategy Paper: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 2007-2013
(4) US will appoint Afghan ‘prime minister’ to bypass Hamid Karzai, Guardian, 22 March 2009
(5) US will appoint Afghan ‘prime minister’ to bypass Hamid Karzai, Guardian, 22 March 2009
(6) Afghanistan: New tactics, same strategy?, BBC News, 23 March 2009
(7) Hamid Karzai: Too nice, too weak – how West’s own man fell out of favour, Guardian, 23 March 2009
(8) America floats plan to tempt Taliban into peace process, Observer, 22 March 2009