Terms of Engagement

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Obama administration needs to make up its mind: Is Ahmed Wali Karzai a menace or an asset?

During his visit to Washington last week, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai allowed that he and U.S. President Barack Obama had discussed the problem posed by his notorious half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, and that the issue had been "resolved." This last part is highly unlikely, unless President Karzai meant something like "we agreed to disagree." The "AWK problem," as it is known in Kabul and Kandahar, not only isn't resolved between Washington and Kabul; it isn't even resolved inside the Obama administration.

AWK is widely believed to be paying off the Taliban, skimming money from drug dealers, stealing government land, running private militias, threatening and even murdering his critics. He is a warlord's warlord. But he is also, and perhaps even more ruinously, using his position as head of Kandahar's provincial council to undermine tentative efforts at good governance emanating from Kabul. In late March, to take only one small example, Kandahar held a local jirga to nominate delegates to the national "peace jirga" President Karzai is holding on May 29 in the hopes of promoting reconciliation with the Taliban. The Ministry of Borders and Tribal Affairs had sent a broad-based list of elders who should be invited to the event. Mysteriously, a new and much-shrunken list appeared 48 hours before the meeting. "We asked around," a senior civilian official in Kandahar told me on my trip there last month, "and found out that it was AWK who made the change." He added, "Jirgas normally go on for days while they reach consensus on an issue. This one consisted of eight set speeches, and then they went to lunch."

The underlying message of the fake jirga, like the underlying message of last year's national election -- which AWK, among many other allies of President Karzai, brazenly rigged -- is that the formal operations of government are a sham, and thus that real power is private and unchecked. The central goal of the counterinsurgency strategy President Obama has adopted last year is to use a combination of military force and civilian assistance to help foster a government sufficiently just and effective that the Afghan people will prefer it to the Taliban. AWK makes a mockery of that goal, which is why a parade of leading figures, including U.S. Amb. Karl Eikenberry, have implored the Afghan leader to rein his brother in -- only to fall back before the president's impossible demand that they furnish documentary proof of misdeeds.

Intriguingly, and encouragingly, the most serious challenge to AWK's power may have come from Afghan authorities: An investigation ordered by Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, the army corps commander in Kandahar, recently concluded that Karzai and his allies were engaging in illegal construction on more than 1,000 acres of government land; AWK retaliated by shutting down the provincial council. President Karzai can dismiss American demands to deal with his brother as arrogant meddling; discrediting allegations by his own senior army officers may prove a tougher sell.

The AWK problem is, at bottom, a problem of legitimacy. The administration's Afghanistan strategy eschews George W. Bush's thunderous language of democracy promotion in favor of the more modest vocabulary of "capacity-building." But a legitimate government is not simply one that can deliver basic goods (though that matters a lot). Legitimacy means that power is at least minimally accountable, and that people believe they have some kind of voice in their own affairs. Kandaharis complain more bitterly about the rule of powerbrokers than they do about the lack of schools or even security. Civilian and military officials in Kandahar are trying to strengthen the capacity of the provincial government by bringing in more representatives of national ministries and boosting the staff of the provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa, who is widely seen as AWK's creature. But, as the senior official said to me, "We're strengthening the capacity of a government which people see as controlled by AWK."

If legitimacy simply means "capacity," then the U.S. can live with, and work around, even the worst warlords. If it means something more like "trust," then figures like AWK are calamitous. But America's contradictory relationship with him is ruled by a deeper, unresolved tension. From the outset of the war, senior U.S. and NATO commanders have gravitated toward the warlords who can deliver for them no matter what their standing with the Afghan people.

In The Punishment of Virtue, her account of the early years of the war in Kandahar, Sarah Chayes, a former reporter for National Public Radio, recounts the increasingly intimate relationship between U.S. military and intelligence officials and Gul Agha Sherzai -- the scion, like AWK, or a powerful local family. Like AWK, Sherzai was deeply implicated in the drug trade, had shadowy relations with the insurgents, and ran roughshod over the concerns of Kandaharis, making him a loathed figure. But he had men and trucks at his command and delivered intelligence the Americans trusted. U.S. officials helped install Sherzai in power instead of former mujahideen commander Mullah Naqib, a far more popular and less brutal figure -- a decision that, Chayes writes, robbed the U.S. of the hope and enthusiasm gained in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban.

President Karzai transferred Sherzai out of the province in 2005 and replaced him with a family loyalist, thus initiating his brother's rise to power. But he could not exist without the support of coalition forces. AWK has long worked closely with, and perhaps been paid by, the CIA, for whom he helps operate a paramilitary force, according to press reports. Diplomats in Kandahar and Kabul want him out, but intelligence officials appear to be continuing to defend him. What's more, owing to the deep tentacles he has sunk in local government as well as such businesses as transportation, he and his allies are the chief beneficiary of the hundreds of millions of dollars NATO spends in the province, according to a recent study (pdf) by the Institute for the Study of War. In short, AWK, like Sherzai before him, has made himself indispensable for the war-fighting side of the U.S.-led Afghan endeavor, even as he has profoundly undermined the ultimate goal of that effort.

The support both men received was understandable, if mistaken, at a time when  NATO forces were fighting a more conventional war. Now they are not, and yet the looming battle for Kandahar has once again put AWK in the driver's seat. According to one recent account, military officials are hoping to "shape" AWK for their own purposes for the upcoming operation.

U.S. officials have tried publicly remonstrating with President Karzai, to no effect. Having called the American bluff, Karzai appears to be in no mood to make painful concessions. Ergo, Ahmad Wali Karzai has nothing to worry about. (Karzai even noted during his remarks in Washington that as an elected official his brother is protected by the Afghan constitution.)

But if that tension between ostensible allies can't be resolved, the one within the U.S. government can be. U.S. military and civilian leaders must decide what kind of war they are fighting. Whatever benefits intelligence agencies or Special Forces derive from AWK cannot possibly equal the harm he does to larger objectives. The report from the Institute for the Study of War argues that U.S. and NATO forces, civilian and military leaders, and provincial and national-level Afghan figures, must coordinate policy rather than work at cross purposes; that contract funds must be spread around rather than poured into the coffers of AWK and his confederates; and that private militias must be disarmed.

Afghanistan's problems are, at bottom, political. The solutions must be political. That's what it means to fight a counterinsurgency war.

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Rights Stuff

Has Obama's campaign to be the anti-Bush in the Middle East gone too far?

In mid-March, right after his tumultuous visit to Israel, Joe Biden enjoyed a much more tranquil day in Amman. While there, he met with leading activists and civil society groups. The next day, the government-affiliated Jordan Times printed a sneering attack on the U.S. vice president, accusing him of clumsily meddling in Jordan's domestic affairs by meeting "clandestinely" with hopelessly marginal organizations preoccupied with "amassing foreign funds without necessarily having any real message that resonates with the wider public."

This is not an easy time for organizations in the Arab world that seek to be independent of the state. Over the last few years, as "civil society" groups have tested the limits of their freedom and challenged stagnant regimes, states have responded by tightening the screws; throwing up new rules about how NGOs must register with government ministries, which routinely reject such applications; and then criminalizing any activities by nonregistered groups. Jordan's governing law, passed in 2008 and amended last year, permits the Ministry of Social Development to reject such applications for any reason. Egypt's Ministry of Social Solidarity has now drafted "reform" legislation that local NGOs fear could reverse the gains of recent years by placing them under stifling state control.

Arab regimes' intransigence on matters of democracy and human rights poses the same problem for President Barack Obama as it did for George W. Bush, who made the democratic transformation of the Middle East the central message of his second inaugural address, and arguably of his foreign policy. The creation of a free Iraq was supposed to empower democrats across the region and sweep away its entrenched autocrats; a violent civil war and an ambiguous outcome in Baghdad only seems to have strengthened them instead.

In his Cairo speech last June, Obama distanced himself from his predecessor's blustering language on democracy and refrained from criticizing any specific government in the region, including that of his host, Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since his predecessor Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination. Obama's goal, after all, was to offer a fresh start, rather than to rub salt in old wounds. Nevertheless, Obama expressed his "unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things," including "the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed."

The White House speaks much of the "post-Cairo agenda," and has even appointed a National Security Council official, Pradeep Ramamurthy, to oversee it. Tamara Cofman Wittes, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, observes that what the Cairo speech offered was not so much specific deliverables, but a new basis for the U.S. relationship with the Middle East: "mutual respect, mutual interests, and mutual responsibility." This new mantra, endlessly repeated, covers a range of actual policies: the new bid for Middle East peace, engagement with Iran, the willingness to examine America's own record on human rights, engagement with ordinary citizens and, yes, civil society.

The first public event of the post-Cairo agenda was last month's "Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship" in Washington. This was, of course, an apolitical event where, as Obama said in his opening address, "America can share our experience as a society that empowers the inventor and the innovator." But the president also framed the initiative in the soaring terms of his Cairo speech, in which, he recalled, "I pledged to forge a new partnership, not simply between governments, but also between people on the issues that matter most in their daily lives -- in your lives." He added his favorite expression of self-approbation: "Many questioned whether this was possible." (Answer: it was.)

The entrepreneurship summit was only the first in a series of such programs: Coming soon are educational exchanges, science envoys, a Global Technology and Innovation Fund, entrepreneurs in residence, and Partners for a New Beginning, which according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will "engage the U.S. private sector in carrying out our vision for a new beginning with Muslims in communities globally."

They seem like fine initiatives. But few will question whether they are possible. Of the pledges Obama made in Cairo, the partnership between people was the most uplifting, and least controversial. The pledge to uphold the rights of free expression and free association, on the other hand, could be understood either as a harmless banality or as a meaningful, and inherently difficult, commitment. The place of democracy in the speech was, in fact, an intensely contested matter; one White House official with whom I spoke says that though democracy advocates have decisively won that debate, the discussion has shifted to "how is that strategy different from the Bush administration, and what priority does it get?"

One way of answering that question is to ask what happens when the doctrine of mutual respect for mutual interests, etc. collides with the regard for such universal values as the right to free expression and association? Do we respect the regimes themselves, and their wish to stay in power at all costs, or do we rather respect the aspirations of citizens to be free of repressive control? How important, in the scale of American concerns, is preserving the hard-won political space within which rights advocates in the Arab world operate? And how can that space best be preserved? Wittes told me the Obama administration is "very focused" on restrictive NGO laws, which "we raise regularly in our discussion with governments." She also made a point of sending me Secretary Clinton's critical response to the decision by Egypt's parliament earlier this week to extend the country's semiperpetual state of emergency by two more years.

But the balance often seems to tip the other way, at least with countries like Egypt with which the U.S. government has important business to transact. Cairo has long chafed at the small portion of the $250 million in annual U.S. development assistance that goes directly to civil society organizations; last year, the Obama administration agreed that all such funding will go only to groups properly registered with the Egyptian government, which "essentially gives the Egyptian regime veto power over the recipients of its civil society direct grants," according to a recent report (pdf) by the Project on Middle East Democracy. (Smaller amounts of such funds continue to come through other entities, including the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative.) The report notes, "There is a widespread perception among supporters of democracy that the administration is focusing too much on improving the ability of current regimes to govern while overlooking the need for pluralism and political competition."

Adocates and scholars have also argued that the Obama administration has been too reluctant to criticize Arab allies by name. As J. Scott Carpenter, a former Bush administration official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, notes, by championing civil society (or democracy) in the abstract, without naming names, "you get the feel-good effect without having to deal with the pushback you get from nation-states." And even the feel-good effect won't last, because "ultimately you undermine your own credibility" with Middle Easterners who have grown cynical about U.S. democracy talk. Of course, Carpenter's former boss inadvertently proved the limits of a more confrontational policy in the Middle East. In 2005, Bush and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice very publicly challenged Mubarak to hold free and fair elections, but when candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially banned, did surprisingly well in the first round and Mubarak sent thugs to beat up and even kill members of the opposition, the White House barely mustered a response.

All this post-Cairo talk about mutuality and new beginnings may be understood as an attempt to repair the damage done by Bush's Freedom Agenda and to seek to accomplish through engagement and cooperation what Bush manifestly did not get through confrontation. But there is no good reason to believe that Mubarak, or for that matter Jordan's more genteel King Abdullah II, will respond to blandishments rather than threats. Rulers throughout the region have kept the valves of public debate and political activity shut for so long that they fear, with reason, that opening them could lead to an uncontrollable flood -- thus the continued, and growing, restrictions on civil society.

But with Mubarak long past his sell-by date and an election scheduled for 2011, the dynamic can't last forever. As Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observes, "Egypt is heading towards a train wreck, in terms of a series of elections that can't be taken seriously, and there has been silence out of Washington. It's a situation where U.S. silence has become untenable."

There are no easy answers in the Middle East. Even if Obama miraculously brings peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he'd still have the ticking time bomb of Arab autocracy. Educational exchanges and science envoys certainly won't hurt, but they won't do much to alter the calculus of the region's princes and tyrants. One of the few things Washington can do is to push, privately and publicly, to open up the space granted to political parties, NGOs, and, yes, entrepreneurs. Sometimes it matters to be seen doing the right thing, even if it doesn't work.

HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images