Hamid Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan who just announced his candidacy for president in the election scheduled for next year, may face political revolt as he returns from an extended tour of the United States and Britain.
He was interviewed via conference call recently and some journalists came away with a little more appreciation for the difficulty of trying to make Afghanistan a single, stable country.
The “nation” of Afghanistan is more an artifact of big-power geopolitical maneuvering during the 19th century than a country that is a logical unity. Over the years, most of the efforts to unify it under a strong central government in Kabul have been partial successes at best. Local rulers usually hold sway in local areas, as the British, the imperial Russians and later the Soviets discovered to their grief.
As we came to understand a bit during the attack that ousted the militant Islamist Taliban government, the largest ethnic group is the Pashtuns, into which Karzai was born. But the Northern Alliance, which provided most of the guerrilla and military muscle that pushed the Taliban out of power, consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks. Karzai has brought Tajiks into his government, alienating some Pashtuns. Now some Tajik leaders say they don’t support Karzai for president.
During his talks in the United States, before the most recent political maneuvering, Karzai not surprisingly accentuated the positive. He noted that a drought of several years’ duration has ended and Afghan farmers are expecting the best crops in 25 years.
Highway construction and reconstruction have begun and the government he heads is beginning to gain respect outside Kabul. He was complimentary of the provincial reconstruction teams, under the auspices of NATO and mostly from New Zealand and Germany, who have begun to provide security and some government services in the countryside beyond Kabul.
He did acknowledge, however, that political reconstruction has been slower than hoped. A new constitution was supposed to be ready by now but has been delayed until December. The election scheduled for June might be only for the national presidency if the machinery is not yet in place for local provincial elections.
The American interest in Afghanistan, of course, is not so much that it become a model democracy as that it doesn’t harbor and encourage active terrorists, as the old Taliban regime did. Ironically, a long-term American presence might do more to undermine this goal than a decision to let Afghans run Afghanistan, even if they do it their way rather than our way.
Any decent person wishes Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan well. But as Karzai said, “a nation shouldn’t depend on one individual. If I’m not elected it might even be a sign of progress.”