Hamid Karzai and his weaknesses

And of course also his strongest points. Karzai was sworn in as the Afghan president for the second term on November 19.

Questions:

1. Why he was chosen in 2001 for the Afghan leader and the President and what we can expect from him in the future?

2. What do you think is his weakest point and what about his biggest advantage?

Answers:

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution

1. Ironically, Hamid Karzai was chosen as a leader of the country in 2001 precisely for some of the qualities that are now seen as impediments to his improving governance in Afghanistan. A Pashtun, Karzai was chosen as the consumerate compromiser who would not be too threatening to the warlords that populated the Afghan political scene in 2001, but one who would not be blantantly partisan or grossly prefer one ethnic or tribal group over another.

But it is precisely this politicking and the lack of resolve to make hard decisions in confronting powerful, predatory, and corrupt warlords that has also become Karzai’s greatest weakness. In fairness to him, early on in his presidency when he was willing to confront the warlords and extend more strongly the rule of the state, the international community, including the United States, did not back him up because they did not have sufficient resources in Afghanistan and because they relied on many of these warlords on actions against al Qaeda and Taliban remnants. So Karzai reacted by accomodating these various powerbrokers and making deals with them that compromise good governance and his ability to undertake actions against corruption and difficult reforms.

Moreover, as his relationship with the international community has deteriorated, he has drawn closer to his own tribal and family networks as well as become more dependent on other political powerbrokers for his political survival and influence.

2. Karzai has become a very component politician. He has become brilliant at dividing opposition to him – both domestic and international, playing one actor against another, making and changing deals, and keeping opposition to him in disarray. But he has not been able to build consensus for anything, especially not for any necessary and imporant, but tough political and governance reforms. This ability to divide opposition got him reelected (even though much fraud was committed on his behalf) and allows him to escape and manage various pressures on him. But it also allows him to avoid dealing with governance problems and thus his legitimacy continues to slide as the government is not able to deliver the elemental public goods, such as safety, rule of law, and some economic development.

Daniel Korski, Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations

1. During the Bonn negotiations, Hamid Karzai was seen as a good compromise candidate. A southern Pashtun figure with a record of resistance to the Taliban, but also an international outlook from his government service as a deputy foreign minister. Yet at the same time he was not seen as one of the “big beats” and therefore potentially threatening to the Northern Alliance.

2. Hamid Karzai’s greatest weakness has probably been his inability to build a more effective state, rather than run the government, and indeed the country, in a semi-feudal way from his cell phone and his office compound. His strength, however, has been his ability to balance competing interests in a way that has kept him in power for so long.

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