Karzai's election woes: Cry me a river

Why the corrupt and increasingly ineffectual Afghan leader doesn't deserve our sympathy

Published April 1, 2010 8:02PM (EDT)

Hamid Karzai is apparently ticked off:

President Hamid Karzai accused the West on Thursday of trying to ruin Afghanistan's elections, intensifying a showdown with parliament over whether foreigners will oversee a parliamentary vote this year.


"Foreigners will make excuses, they do not want us to have a parliamentary election," a defiant Karzai told a gathering of election officials. "They want parliament to be weakened and battered, and for me to be an ineffective president and for parliament to be ineffective.

"You have gone through the kind of elections during which you were not only threatened with terror, you also faced massive interference from foreigners," Karzai told the officials. "Some embassies also tried to bribe the members of the commission."

OK, here's my very American reply: No shit, Your Excellency. Yes, the positions taken by foreign countries -- by which both you and I mean "America" -- are going to have an effect on your elections. And insiders -- by which I mean you -- will be offering all kinds of bribes and unsavory deals to make sure that you get the parliament you want.

The reason this anger, which is probably genuine, elicits so little sympathy is that Karzai is by now notoriously surrounded by (and slow to take action against) corruption, and has been accused by inside and outside observers of massive fraud in his own re-election last August. Unlike the corrupt guys we apparently love to deal with in Iraq, he's also unpopular and ineffective. See how that doesn't work out? The U.S. math in all of this has always been: Corrupt + helpful = our guy; Corrupt + unhelpful = our enemy. Karzai has slid from one category into the other, and now he's angry because the system that has worked for him will now be working against him. Please pause for a moment while I weep big crocodile tears.

Some of his anger stems from his current inability to get funding from the U.N. to hold elections, because the U.N. wants to hold money back until it is allowed to appoint the majority of members to a board that monitors election fraud. Karzai tried to eliminate the U.N. role on the board altogether, something even his own parliament thought was a terrible idea; now, the U.N. has capitulated, and will agree to appoint a minority share of the board's members. That's all up in the air, thanks to the parliamentary squabble.

Karzai argues that Afghanistan's ability to appoint its own members to the board is an important sign of Afghanistan's sovereignty. It appears to be a sign of Afghanistan-as-usual, instead, a way for Karzai to monitor and influence the elections that will decide how his career goes (or ends). A real sign of returning sovereignty might be if the president didn't have to throw an international fit to get the money to run his own country's elections, but could instead exercise some of his own powers to ensure better safety.

That kind of sovereignty hasn't been part of Karzai's plan, however. I do believe he wants an Afghanistan for Afghanis, but he wants more and more to be able to define who those particular citizens are, and what that picture of Afghanistan will be, instead of leaving it to the will of the people.

It must be frustrating, then, to realize that as mad as he gets, there are certain things he can't stop. He needs the U.N.'s money. He needs the U.S. (do we still say "coalition"?) troops. So he can rail against them, but he can't do without them. I'd be mad as hell, too.

That President Obama recently visited and apparently presented Karzai with a host gift of what-for probably doesn't help matters. Karzai's international support has eroded, and instead of acting on the demands that would bring that support back -- working with parliament to eliminate corruption in his cabinet, perhaps by starting with getting his opium-smuggling brother or warlord vice president new jobs -- Karzai is instead lashing out, disingenuously accusing his accusers. Case in point: he's called Peter Galbraith, the man fired from the U.N. mission for suggesting they should be doing more about the election fraud in Afghanistan, the one responsible for all the election fraud.

Great campaign strategy. Let me know how that works out for you in the fall.

By Jenn Kepka

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