Not long ago Hamid Karzai was being feted in western capitals as a model leader. He was articulate, educated, westernised – even stylish. In 2004 Esquire magazine included the Afghan president in its list of “best-dressed men in the world”, praising his “multicultural” outfits. “As a new player on the international scene, he must appeal at home and abroad,” noted the magazine’s writers. “His clothes reflect that.”
Seven years and two presidential elections later, whatever appeal Karzai – and his wardrobe – may have had is fast ebbing away, both domestically and internationally. The Afghan president has been exposed as weak and unpopular, corrupt and incompetent. He is viewed by millions of Afghans as a US stooge. The obvious historical analogy is between Karzai and Ngo Dinh Diem, the pro-US president of South Vietnam, hailed by Lyndon Johnson as the “Churchill of Asia” but then executed by his own generals in 1963, with American approval, after his thuggish and corrupt behaviour exacerbated the Vietcong insurgency.
Karzai, like Diem before him, is seeing his grip on power starting to slip. During the past fortnight, for instance, ordinary Afghans have witnessed the high-profile assassinations of the president’s own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was shot in his Kandahar home by his head of security, and the president’s close adviser and confidante, Jan Mohammad Khan, who was shot in his Kabul home by two intruders. An emboldened Taliban claimed credit for both killings – and for last month’s brazen attack on the supposedly secure Intercontinental hotel in Kabul, resulting in a five-hour gun battle which left two policemen and 11 civilians dead in the heart of the country’s capital.
These are not random or gratuitous acts of violence: they are part of a coherent strategy by insurgents to undermine the authority of Karzai and his Kabul-based administration, and create a sense of fear and insecurity among the population. For the west’s counterinsurgency plan to have any chance of working in Afghanistan, members of the public have to be made to feel safe; if civilians are to be persuaded to co-operate with the government and not the Taliban, they have to be protected from violence. Yet, according to the latest figures from the UN, noncombatant deaths were up 15% in the first half of 2011 compared with a year earlier.
As the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan approaches, the country continues its descent into chaos. The president, meanwhile, has shamelessly surrounded himself with some of the country’s most notorious warlords. Karzai’s campaign team in 2009’s presidential election, for instance, included Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek general accused of slaughtering hundreds of prisoners in 2001, and Muhammad Fahim, a former defence minister accused of kidnappings, land grabs and other human-rights abuses. Then, of course, there is the way in which the president spent the past few years turning a blind eye to the involvement of his (late) brother in the booming drugs trade in the south of the country(Diem, too, appointed a drug-smuggling brother to a senior position in the South Vietnamese government). “The Karzai family has opium and blood on their hands,” one Western intelligence official told the New York Times in 2009.
But, of course, seeing no instant or appealing alternative to Karzai on offer, cynical western governments backed his re-election campaign two years ago and overlooked the way in which his “victory” was secured with the aid of more than a million fraudulent votes. This despite the fact that in November 2009, the then US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, sent two diplomatic cables to the White House in which he argued that Karzai “is not an adequate strategic partner” and “continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden,” adding: “He and much of his circle do not want the US to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further.” In other cables, revealed by WikiLeaks, Eikenberry described the Afghan president as “paranoid” and “weak”, with “an inability to grasp the most rudimentary principles of state-building”.
Several leading diplomats share the former US ambassador’s assessment. Peter Galbraith, who served as a UN envoy to Afghanistan until 2009, has since publicly questioned the “mental stability” of Karzai and even suggested that the Afghan president may be using drugs. How else, after all, to explain Karzai’s erratic behaviour? In April 2010, for instance, he threatened to quit politics and join the Taliban if the west put any further pressure on him to reform his government.
Today British troops handed over responsibility for security in Lashkar Gah, the capital of war-torn Helmand province, to Afghan forces. There is no doubt that in the fight for Afghan hearts and minds, the west has to have a credible Afghan partner. It is high time Karzai’s western patrons recognised that the hapless and discredited president they are propping up is part of the problem, not the solution, in Afghanistan.
Mehdi Hasan, senior editor (politics) at the New Statesman and a former news and current affairs editor at Channel 4. He is co-author of Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leade.