Going to War with the Proxies You Have

How do we possibly make sense of Karzai? The short answer is we can’t, says Steve Saideman.

By: /
29 January, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Hamid Karzai is the gift that keeps on giving. He is now accusing the U.S. of being behind dozens of attacks, including the recent bombing of a Kabul restaurant that resulted in 21 fatalities, including two Canadians. “It’s a deeply conspiratorial view that’s divorced from reality,” U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham said on Monday. The Taliban seem to be in agreement with the U.S.: “Whatever claims we make, those are attacks that have genuinely been carried out by our forces,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a phone interview. This comes hard on the heels of a decision to release more than 30 Afghans who had been arrested for attacking elements of the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF].  The U.S. wanted these Afghans tried, and Karzai released them instead. How do we possibly make sense of Karzai?

There is a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is we cannot. The long answer, or an attempt at one, follows below. Yesterday, I was teaching my Contemporary International Security course on the topic of counter-insurgency. One of the key challenges in any counter-insurgency [COIN] effort is that the outsiders have to rely on the indigenous people to do much of the hard work.  The people who live in and govern the society have a far better understanding of who is an insurgent, who is not, and the various political dynamics. T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) produced the basic wisdom that it is better for indigenous forces to do something adequately than outsiders to do it perfectly. That is good advice, but it ignores a larger problem whenever one intervenes: the interests of the outsiders and the interests of the people inside the country will not be identical.

Which leads to the big question: what are Karzai’s interests and why the hell did we pick him?  Let me address the second question first. Hamid Karzai seemed to be the best of the alternatives.  He was articulate in English, which mattered since much of his work did involve the international community. He is a Pashtun, which meant that he might be able to appeal to the part of Afghanistan that was least likely to support the government and had been the group most supportive of the Taliban. He also had his own powerbase, so he had both resources and experience.  And the Afghans chose him. In my conversations with those who worked with Karzai in 2003-2004, they say that Karzai was a willing and able partner. As he sought to build a government, he received help from Canada and others. 

However, over time, Karzai apparently became much more focused on what it took to stay in power than what was best for Afghanistan and building a sustainable government. This is not uncommon – my previous book, entitled “For Kin or For Country,” suggested that a basic tradeoff exists between doing what is best for oneself versus what is best for the country. Karzai took it to another level, since he could have pursued power in ways that were not so hostile to the international effort or to institution-building in Afghanistan.

The turning point was probably not the 2009 election but the campaign before it. During that campaign, it was as if the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] was the other candidate, as Karzai ran against ISAF, focusing attention on civilian casualties. To be certain, as President of Afghanistan, he has a responsibility to try to minimize the harm done to Afghans by “outsiders.” However, the Taliban then, and now, were doing far more harm to Afghans than the international community. Yet, for some reason, Karzai thought the best campaign strategy was to run against ISAF. And he has been doing so ever since. He has blamed corruption on NATO, and there is something to that since delivering lots of money to an underdeveloped country is a recipe for nepotism and fraud. On the other hand, Karzai benefited greatly from the very same corruption and blocked efforts to deal with it. He also blames the United States for the failure of negotiations with the Taliban, but much of that depends on the Taliban.

The statements are bad enough, but the real problem Karzai presents right now is as an impediment to the Bilateral Security Agreement that would allow American and other countries’ forces to remain after 2014. This is not just about foreign troops but also dollars as aid to the Afghan army would dry up if no agreement is reached.  Already, the U.S. Congress is seeking to cut aid to Afghanistan quite significantly. Karzai’s stance on the BSA is especially puzzling given that The Loya Jirgha that met to discuss the proposed agreement favoured it. If the money dries up, then the Afghan military may fall apart with deleterious consequences for the future of the Afghan state, and everyone knows this. 

So, what game is Karzai playing? Some suggest that Karzai is hoping for good treatment by the Taliban after the Americans leave. Well, that makes little sense since he would not have worry so much about appealing to the Taliban if the Americans stuck around. Is this position-taking just for domestic audiences? Again, who is this domestic audience who wants these stances?

If we cannot understand what Karzai is thinking, what are we to learn? Well, I think the international community has learned some key lessons that we are already applying in Syria: Namely, that if we cannot identify reliable local partners, then we should not intervene. We also need to be smarter about providing incentives and limiting mistakes. One of the big problems in Afghanistan is that we supported the building of a centralized political system that put much power in the hands of the Afghan president. Karzai has the ability to hire and fire officials throughout the country, so we have found governors and district leaders to be more responsive to Karzai and his whims. Next time, we might want to assess whether a centralized or decentralized set of structures makes more sense. The irony is that political scientists have been studying for years which kinds of institutions make sense for divided societies. Presidential systems with few checks have tended not to be on the top of their lists.

Anyhow, the “understanding Karzai” game is getting old. However, we may still be playing it after the Afghanistan elections this year if Karzai finds a way to stick around despite existing term limits. I guess we better figure it out.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us