Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Reliable partners

Martine van Bijlert 2 min

The pendulum has swung again. After a few days of crisis and strained relations the US administration has publicly smoothed over the unease and the anger and has welcomed Karzai back into the ranks of ‘reliable partners’. Letters have been sent, joint appearances made and reassuring statements given. It is difficult to know what is worse, to see the world gang up and push Karzai around for supposedly being the beginning and the end of all Afghanistan’s problems, or to witness the backing down, the overly friendly words, the subjects that must now not be broached.

The obsession with Karzai as a person – trying to determine whether he has ‘gone rogue’ or whether he is still on our side; blaming him personally for the corruption in the government’s ranks and pressuring him to fix it; constantly seeking his consent, however grudgingly given, without really consulting – obscures the real bind we are in. Karzai and his international handlers have become each others hostages. They cannot control each others’ behaviour, but suffer from the fall-out. They are unsure of each others’ intentions. They would like to be rid of each other, but that would pull the rug out from under their feet.

But worst of all, the Western focus on a single figurehead and a few ‘effective officials’ distracts from the fact that both the government and the international intervention rest largely on a foundation of exploitative and violent networks. It was of course the Karzai administration that allowed them to flourish, but he did not do it on its own and the international actors have become part of the tangled mess of murky relationships and conflicting interests in more ways than they wish to think about.

The fundamental problem of course is that the Afghan government is not a reliable partner. It is dysfunctional and largely focused on extraction and survival, although at the central level and during coordination meetings there may be a spreading veneer of efficiency. This does not mean that Afghanistan is a lost cause, but it does mean we may want to give up on pretending that the government is something that it is not.

The other side of the problem of course is that the international actors are not reliable partners either – they are disunited and undecided and when push comes to shove do not provide the support that would be needed to tackle the corruption, the oppression and the violence. When push comes to shove they have their own friends whose removals or transfers they block, in essence becoming part of the elaborate patronage and petitioning system.

Karzai may have been acting out emotionally, but he has strong tactical instincts. Although his outbursts do not seem to have gained him a lot of domestic credit, he has managed to publicly beat back the pressure of the US and its allies at a moment when people were holding their breath to see whether this time he had gone too far. It is not the first time that he has bluffed his way back into being thanked for his cooperativeness. Of course there are domestic Western audiences that need to be reassured, but in the long run whatever the strategy is, it is much better served by consistency and firmness. Provided of course that it is backed up by a commitment among the internationals to clean up their own act as well.


Hamid Karzai US


Martine van Bijlert

More from this author