Afghanistan: Risking a Collapse

Karzai Sept 17.jpg

Omar Sobhani/Reuters/Corbis

Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, September 17, 2013

What on earth is Hamid Karzai up to? When I visited Afghanistan in October, most people with whom I spoke assumed that the Afghan president would resist signing a long-term military basing agreement with the United States until the Loya Jirga (grand national assembly) had approved it. At that point, having burnished his credentials as an Afghan nationalist, it was thought that he would sign, since the Loya Jirga would give him cover and since he must know that the entire future of his state and his own Pashtun ethnic group probably depends on it. But now that the Loya Jirga has approved the agreement, Karzai has instead announced he might not sign until after the presidential election in April—thereby putting at risk the willingness of the US and the West to remain engaged in Afghanistan at all.

For the agreement is only partly about a continued US military presence after the withdrawal of ground troops next year. More important is a continuation of promised US and Western aid. Already there is a strong desire among Western politicians and populations to reduce that aid, citing both economic hardship at home and the immense corruption of the Afghan state. In the event of a complete withdrawal of Western forces it is likely that the international community’s commitment to go on helping Afghanistan will rapidly disappear. And if that happens, the Afghan state will collapse, just as it did in early 1992 when Soviet subsidies stopped after the fall of the USSR.

To be fair, the current situation is not entirely bleak. Security in the capital has improved considerably, and at the moment there is no risk of the Taliban storming into Kabul or even the cities of the East and South. But things will only stand as they are as long as we go on paying for them to do so. US and international aid now account for around nine-tenths of the Afghan national budget, and fund virtually 100 percent of the budget of the Afghan National Army and of state spending on economic development. In fact, things are even worse than that: since the Afghan state is incapable of taxing income or domestic sales, most of its revenue comes from tariffs on imports—foreign goods that are above all drawn in by Western-funded spending. Absent this help, the only option for the Afghan state will be to encourage the heroin trade in order to at least support its troops.

How can Karzai be so foolish as to risk such an outcome? In the first place, he may not see how great the danger is. It has been reported that, like many Afghans, Karzai is genuinely convinced that Afghanistan is so central to American interests that the US government will never pull out, and that he thinks he has immense bargaining power in Washington. This is a mistake that has been made by the leaders of a whole series of US client regimes over the years, including most recently Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in August 2008.

Possibly more important, however, is that during the election in April, Karzai will be playing a game for very high stakes. After two five-year terms, Karzai is required to step down and is angling to have as much influence as he can over the election result and the successor government that emerges from it. In this game Washington will hold important cards, and Karzai may well believe that he must counter this with every powerful card of his own that he can possibly stuff up his sleeve.

Whatever the West may believe, or pretend to believe, or try to insist, next April’s election was never going to be decided mainly by popular vote. The vote does matter, but so do other factors: rigging and manipulation, not only by the Karzai government but by local powerbrokers across the country; and backroom deals between Karzai and the leading candidates and their backers, above all concerning the distribution of jobs and money (paid for out of Western aid).

The most important question about the election, touching on Afghanistan’s long-term survival as a country, concerns the Pashtuns, the powerful ethnic group to which Karzai belongs and from which the Taliban also draw most of their support. At about 45 percent of the population according to most estimates—most Pashtuns themselves believe they are in a large majority—the Pashtuns are the country’s largest ethnic group. But they must vie for power with Tajiks, who make up another 30 percent or so, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and other groups. Will the Pashtuns accept a non-Pashtun (or someone seen as non-Pashtun) as president? And if not, how much rigging will be necessary to ensure a Pashtun victory, and what will be necessary to reconcile the losers?


Strictly speaking, all the current presidential candidates are Pashtuns. However, the one who seems at present to have the largest bloc of support—though in Afghanistan it is impossible to judge these things with any certainty—is former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who was the losing candidate against Karzai in the 2009 elections, which were widely believed to have been rigged in Karzai’s favor. Abdullah’s father was Pashtun, but his mother was Tajik, and more importantly, Abdullah was a close follower of the famous Panjshiri Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Masoud, assassinated by Al Qaeda on the eve of 9/11. Few Pashtuns have forgotten the atrocities committed by Masoud’s militias against Pashtuns during the civil wars of the 1990s and after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Abdullah has tried to overcome this by choosing as his vice presidential running-mate a Pashtun linked to the Hizb-e-Islami party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Masoud’s former arch-enemy.

However, I have found much disagreement in Afghanistan and among Afghan experts about whether—as on a number of occasions in the past—the spectacle of a non-Pashtun ruling in Kabul would lead to Pashtun outrage and create a new wave of support for the Taliban just as US troops withdraw. This question is particularly critical because Afghanistan was founded and ruled for more than two hundred years by Pashtun dynasties, and the Pashtuns have always seen themselves as the people of state. If they turn en masse against any government in Kabul, there is little hope that it can survive.

If in the first round of elections no candidate wins more than 50 percent, there is a good chance that all the Pashtun factions will come together to ensure the victory of a Pashtun president in the second round. So Abdullah’s best chance of victory is to win outright in the first round. But if Karzai becomes convinced that Abdullah could win outright in the first round and decides that he simply cannot allow this (whether for his own sake or Afghanistan’s) then he will need to rig the first round in favor of one or more of the Pashtun candidates, and hope that he can offer enough jobs and money to Abdullah’s leading followers to get them to accept—however grudgingly—the final result. He will also of course have to offer a great deal to the different Pashtun candidates to get them to unite behind whichever one gets through to the second round.

A likely victor may be former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul, a Karzai loyalist with little backing of his own who could probably be counted on as president to defer to Karzai. Others are Karzai’s brother Qayyum, and former reformist finance minister Ashraf Ghani, once considered a long shot but now garnering significant support, partly thanks to his alliance with notorious Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum.

All in all, then, the election is not going to be a pretty sight; and Karzai may perhaps imagine that his signature on the basing agreement with the US could be decisive in getting the Obama administration to ignore the less savory aspects of the contest and accept the outcome that he desires.

Now all this may seem unbearably cynical, and some readers may conclude that the West would do better to withdraw completely and cut off aid rather than continue to support such a corrupt state. For those that do, however, it is worth reading A Fort of Nine Towers, the new memoir by the Afghan writer Qaid Akbar Omar. This book recounts the experiences of the author’s family during the civil war that followed the fall of the Communist regime in 1992, and that in turn contributed to the rise of the Taliban. In these battles, the city of Kabul—which had managed to survive the Mujahedin campaign against the Soviets—was largely destroyed in battles between the different ethnic factions into which the Mujahedin fragmented. So appalling are some of the atrocities described in Omar’s book that they would scarcely be credible were they not amply confirmed by other sources.

In other words, the choice Afghanistan faces is not between some idealized version of Western democracy and a corrupt Afghan state; it is between a corrupt but more or less consensual Afghan state and the horrors of no state at all. Nor should it ever be forgotten that the US and the West bear much of the blame for what happened after 1992. Washington and its allies stuffed the Mujahedin parties with arms and money, helped to block any chance of a peace settlement between them and the Afghan government, and then lost any pretense of interest in what happened to Afghanistan the moment the Soviets withdrew.

The guns we provided then helped the Mujahedin parties and their warlords to slaughter each other and an uncounted number of ordinary Afghans. To this were added of course the guns carried by the soldiers of the Afghan army at the time, soldiers who also went to serve warlords and ethnic militias when Soviet subsidies ran out and the army could no longer be paid. Today, we too have created an Afghan state and army that cannot survive without our help, and that will also disintegrate again into warlord anarchy if our help is withdrawn. The West has a deep moral and historical responsibility to make sure that this does not happen.


Of course, one of the most important legacies of the 1990s is the Taliban, whose position in all this I have hardly mentioned. It is to this other side of Afghanistan that I will turn in my next post.

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