Talking the Talk

South Africans aren't the only ones keeping quiet about AIDS.

Jonny Steinberg's article on South African AIDS literature reminded me of a reading from my book The Invisible Cure I had arranged to give at a black bookstore near my house in Harlem ("An Eerie Silence," May/June 2011).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the HIV rate in this and other predominantly black New York neighborhoods may be as high as 6 percent -- not in South Africa's league, but very high indeed. But just as in South Africa, no one wanted to talk about it. Pharmaceutical companies advertise AIDS drugs on bus shelters, and the Department of Health and Human Services sponsors HIV-testing campaigns, but local newspapers, churches, and community groups are silent on the issue. In keeping with this general tendency, the only people who turned up at my reading were my husband and the bookstore's cashier. (Two friends and the bookstore's owner appeared later.)

Fighting AIDS isn't impossible. During the 1980s and early 1990s, steep declines in HIV infections occurred in both American gay white men and in the general population of the East African country of Uganda, where the virus was spreading predominantly among heterosexuals, as it is in South Africa and the U.S. black community today. Even if the causes of the gay white American and Ugandan epidemics were different, the key to fighting them was similar: behavior change among communities at risk, motivated by frank discussion of sex and relationships. Literary and artistic responses to AIDS in both countries were part of this vital conversation.

What is stifling a similar response to AIDS among African-Americans and in South Africa? As Steinberg notes, it's probably shame. In both South Africa and the United States, the alleged hypersexuality of blacks was used to justify the racist ideas that underpinned apartheid and Jim Crow laws, and much black cultural expression today is devoted to dispelling racist myths and promoting black pride. As Steinberg also notes, talking frankly about AIDS and sex must seem like capitulation, an admission that the sexualized racist stereotypes of the past were true. Ugandans, by contrast, never endured these burdens of alleged inferiority to anything like a similar degree. During colonial times, the advancement of native Ugandans in medicine, law, government, agriculture, and other fields promoted the idea that they could solve their own problems. Similarly, the gay pride movement rooted in the 1960s helped gay men face up to the reality of AIDS in the 1980s. In communities where this sense of empowerment is lacking, programs for HIV treatment and testing alone can never generate it. Only language can do that, and only black culture at its most creative can find it.  

Helen Epstein
New York, N.Y.


Losing Obama

Hamid Karzai's biggest problem isn't his relationship with the United States, but with his own country.

Ahmed Rashid rightly derides both the Bush and Obama administrations for their inconsistent approach to Afghan President Hamid Karzai ("How Obama Lost Karzai," March/April 2011). But it is a very America-centric view to suggest that it was Barack Obama who lost Karzai.

Karzai runs a country that Transparency International ranks as the second-most corrupt in the world. For many Afghans, government is a predatory institution in league with local power brokers. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half brother, is a top official and much-hated predator in Kandahar province, where he is thought to do business and drug deals with the Taliban. Another Karzai brother obtained a 7 percent interest in Kabul Bank with no cash outlay. The bank subsequently collapsed, and the bailout has now consumed a sum that is a considerable portion of Afghanistan's national budget.

Karzai is not, as Rashid writes, a "twice-elected" president. Karzai returned to office in 2009 only after the election commission he appointed conspired with his political allies to produce more than 1 million phony Karzai votes. Last year, Karzai used extraconstitutional means to change the rules for the parliamentary elections. When the results still did not go his way, he set up an illegal tribunal to remove opposition parliamentarians. As a result, many Afghans now see both the president and the parliament as illegitimate.

Rashid is right when he says that neither Obama nor his top advisors think much of Karzai. However, the problem is not that the U.S. government has been too antagonistic toward Karzai, but that it has been too tolerant. The Obama team continues to act as if Karzai were a partner in the fight against corruption, when he and his family are its beneficiaries. Providing anti-corruption assistance to a thoroughly crooked government only makes for more effective thieves. The Obama administration lost the chance to support democracy when it initially went along with a U.N. effort to hush up the fraud in the 2009 presidential election and did little to insist on fair rules for the parliamentary elections. It now has to live with the regime's legitimacy deficit.

U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan depends on having an effective local partner. With the corrupt, ineffective, erratic, and illegitimate Karzai government in power, the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy simply cannot work. Karzai has not yet lost Obama, but he is in danger of losing his country.

Peter W. Galbraith
Former U.N. Deputy Special Representative to Afghanistan
Montpelier, Vt.

Ahmed Rashid replies:

I stand by my article and the issues I raised in it about the long, complicated relationship between the United States and Afghanistan over the past 10 years. Every part of that relationship including the issue of corruption, which I raised myself and which Peter Galbraith has emphasized, has a history behind it. The avarice and greed of individual Afghans are no doubt partly to blame for the corruption. But so is the United States, with its years-long policies of paying off warlords, which allowed the drug economy to take root, and its lack of investment in an indigenous Afghan economy.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

CAPTBOBALOU: It may be that Karzai failed to understand the nature of a transparent democracy. The voices are rarely unified, the policies rarely clear. On the other hand, that doesn't mean the United States can't be trusted. 

KUNINO: The U.S. civilian government backed Karzai as president and is stuck with the fact that the man it hustled into the Afghan presidency isn't able to do everything that Washington would like him to do. But could any other Afghan president do better?