Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

AAN Election Blog No. 4: The Bag and the Donkey

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

The balance of Karzai‘s five year tenure for Afghanistan is devastating – but it is unfair to blame him alone. Indeed, the general framework has considerably improved in comparison to the Taleban era.

The country is no more an outcast in the world community but receives unprecedented international support. There are NGOs, political parties and a free media. According to the law, women are allowed to work again, and girls to attend school. The protection of human rights is enshrined in the constitution. Only what is laid down in the laws by far hasn’t become reality.

Under Karzai – interim head of state since 2001 and elected President since 2004 – socially relevant parameters have deteriorated: The security situation has worsened in every single year. Insurgents operate in all provinces of the country now. The opium poppy production went beyond anything previously known. And the focus on the Taleban phenomenon covers the fact that Afghanistan still is in a humanitarian crisis. 44 per cent of all households are insufficiently fed. 25 times more Afghans are killed by hunger and poverty than by violence. Meanwhile, the economy is growing – a sign that the social rift is growing. There is a lack of legal security and jobs.

If one asks Afghans in the street about Karzai, the answer often is: His government is corrupt. His brothers are enriching themselves in his name. He rotates incompetent governors from post to post instead of getting rid of them. The warlords are happy meanwhile. To break their power was one of Karzai’s most important election promises in 2004. How much this was wanted by the population was reflected by his election victory: Already in the first round he secured a straight majority of 55.4 per cent in this notoriously fragmented country.

To blame Karzai alone for all of Afghanistan’s misery would be unfair. It would be like hitting the bag instead of the donkey – to quote an Arabic proverb. After all, it was a long chain of wrong political decisions imposed by the Bush administration and accepted silently by its allies that put Afghanistan on the wrong track.

To mention only some of the most important ones:

In November 2001, Washington gave green light to the mujahedin of the Northern Alliance to move into Kabul – although there was an international agreement that the Afghan capital would remain demilitarised so that an all-party government could be established there. Karzai, without a powerbase of his own, became a fig leave for the Northern Alliance warlords. A month later, at the Afghanistan conference in Bonn, a delegation of Afghan democrats and civil society activists was not admitted although it had been invited by the United Nations and the German hosts and was present on the Petersberg. This resulted into their further exclusion from the political process. (A high-ranking German diplomat involved in Bonn told me there privately when the conference was over that this had been a serious mistake.)

At the first Loya Jirga in mid-2002, Washington’s Special Envoy and later Ambassador to Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad – called ’the Vice Roy’ in Kabul – arm-twisted the former Afghan King who wanted to be a candidate for head of state, as a normal citizen not in his former capacity from which he had abdicated. Most Pashtun delegates wanted to vote for him. During the second, the Constitutional Loya Jirga, he – together with Karzai – brought together a Pashtun majority that chose a presidential system designed after the US example and tailored towards Karzai’s person – against the fierce resistance of almost half of the delegates. Both also prevented the establishment of an independent constitutional court that could have been an impartial arbiter for foreseeable internal political conflicts.

Before the parliamentary elections in 2005, pressure from Washington on the UN made sure that the High Commissioner for Human Rights was not allowed to publish a so-called mapping of civil war crimes. In that document, the names of the perpetrators were given – and the Afghan electoral law stipulated that participants in such crimes were excluded from being candidates. The US still believed that having those warlords-cum-human rights abusers would give the political process more stability when included than when excluded. Commissioner Louise Arbour soon lost her job – as later another UN human rights rapporteur who dared to criticize the US forces for causing civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Many warlords now are honourable members of the Afghan parliament.

The US also imposed a mandate on the international troops that excluded intervening in inner-Afghan factional strife, so-called green-on-green conflicts. When Karzai in March 2004 called a leading ISAF commander for a meeting because he planned to move against a powerful warlord in Western Afghanistan and needed backing, the general was forced to helplessly shrug his shoulders.

The cut of the new Afghan state system to Karzai’s person led to an over-centralisation of state power that paralysed many institutions below the President’s level. The separation of powers was annulled. The parliament was not consulted on many important issues, the independence of the judiciary compromised. Both were subdued by the executive. Political alternatives to Karzai were not allowed to grow by Khalilzad. Political parties were sidelined or co-opted, civil society groups made dependent on outside funding. For much too long, the US overlooked the galloping corruption in Karzai‘s government until it dropped on Transparency International’s corruption index, currently being the fifth country from the bottom. Instead towards democratisation, the train went off in the direction of a narco-mafia state.

All these decisions were well understood by Karzai. Instead of sidelining the warlords politically, as wished by the majority of the Afghans (see the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s 2005 report ‘A Call for Justice’ where almost three fourths of the Afghan population called for judicial steps against war criminals), he went into arrangements with them – also before the upcoming presidential elections on 20 August.

To satisfy one of them who is a key person in his campaign team, Karzai released a relative from prison – a convicted heroin trafficker. Others he promised ministerial and ambassadorial posts in return for their support to mobilise voters. Those warlords and governors appointed by Karzai will make sure that he wins on 20 August. Only that this kind of victory will not enable him to solve Afghanistan’s problems since it will remain Karzai’s secret how he wants to form an effective government that addresses Afghans’ basic needs when factional and ethnic affiliation supersedes competence as a criterion.

Bound and shaped by his allies’ and donors’ interests, Karzai the Reformer became Karzai the Status Quo Politician that prioritises staying in power. The chances are rather low that this changes after an elections victory. Despite its new strategy, it will become very difficult for the Obama administration to put a ‘democratically’ legitimised Karzai on a better course.

From Kabul with Love,


This is the English (and slightly edited) version of Thomas Ruttig’s op-ed in Berlin daily die tageszeitung (taz) on 12 August 2009 – at this website’s non-German speaking audience’s service.


Government Democratization Elections