Is Karzai Actually a Great Leader?

Don't be too quick to condemn Afghanistan's unpredictable president to history's dustbin.

Afghan presidents historically have never gone gently into the night -- they have been variously shot, poisoned, suffocated by pillows, castrated, and hanged. This has never been a job with a comfortable retirement plan.

Except this time, the very first in Afghan history, when President Hamid Karzai -- constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term -- will transfer power to an elected successor. That process is set to begin on April 5, when Afghans go to the polls to elect their first and only post-Taliban leader.

It's a process that could take weeks, and more likely, months if the election goes to a runoff. It will be messy. It will be difficult. It will certainly be dangerous. But it will happen, and nothing -- no amount of complaints, compromises, or Taliban attacks -- can take away the historic import of this ballot.

It's also a testimony to Karzai's survival skills in a country where competing ethnic interests, local powerbrokers, warlords, and foreign (U.S.) overlords need to be accommodated, mollified, and occasionally faced down -- without the delicate edifice crumbling into war, as it has done in the past.

"If Karzai does end his term without dying, that in itself will be historical in Afghan terms," said Graeme Smith, an author and senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "He has survived the past decade by holding together a fractious coalition of powerbrokers, many of whom have fought with each other in previous decades. He has managed to keep them on side by cajoling, economic incentives, and all kinds of trickery."

The big question though, after all these years, is whether Karzai was, in the end, a great leader. Can he even hold a candle to the regional heroes he so publicly admires, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan?

Or was he more of a Shah Shujah, a fellow Durrani noble in the 19th century, who handed the famous Kohinoor diamond to Punjab's Maharajah Ranjit Singh, served as colonial Britain's puppet king, and did the craven alliance-appeasement thing until his assassination?

Was Karzai's big-tent approach of accommodating powerbrokers, for instance, simply not appreciated by his bossy foreign overlords (who are not known for their cultural intelligence or diplomatic delicacy)?

Or does Karzai's legacy lie somewhere in between?

Nearly 13 years ago, when he emerged on the world's stage resplendent in his striped chappan robe and signature karakul hat, Karzai bore the hopes of his war-weary people and a fretful international community on his stylishly encased shoulders with aplomb. Over the course of a decade though, the image transformed into that of a mercurial, emotionally-precarious leader isolated in the heavily guarded Arg, as the Afghan presidential palace is known.

"In the beginning, Karzai was viewed through rose-tinted glasses," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. "Now, there's a very negative view of him, particularly in the West -- and that's partly unfair. He's being blamed for things that are not just his fault -- like corruption and not dealing with strongmen. In that, he and the international community and international military have a shared responsibility."

One of the better known cases of shared international responsibility involved Karzai's late brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a prominent politician in his native Kandahar and a suspected player in Afghanistan's booming opium trade. In 2009 -- two years before his assassination -- the New York Times confirmed what many Afghans and experts suspected: the corrupt Kandahar powerbroker was getting regular payments by the CIA.

The case of Karzai's brother was just the tip of the iceberg. A report by the Center on International Cooperation at New York University found U.S. and NATO contingents had frequently hired private security providers linked to regional warlords. On the corruption front, the international disillusionment with the Afghan president was palpable in U.S. memos from Kabul to Washington published by WikiLeaks, which detailed at least one case of Karzai pardoning Afghan officials detained for their involvement in the opium trade.

But if the honeymoon between Karzai and the West was starting to sour in the second-half of the 2000s, it was the Afghan president's 2009 reelection bid that drove the couple to Splitsville.

A bitter post-electoral process marred by allegations of widespread fraud, recounts and investigations by the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) only ended when Karzai's main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from a runoff citing lack of faith in the Karzai administration's ability to hold a fair election. "The 2009 election was seen by Karzai as an intentional humiliation of him by the West," van Bijlert said. "In the end, the way he interpreted it was that the U.S. wanted to weaken him. He took it very personally."

Nearly five years later, in his memoir, Duty, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that the 2009 poll was "ugly" and that Karzai was "tainted." But Gates also noted that "our hands were dirty as well" before accusing the United States of trying to manipulate the outcome in a "clumsy and failed putsch." The reaction in Kabul circles and among Karzai's advisors was immediate. "I've been emailed pages from Gates' book by different Afghan friends, sometimes with passages in all caps," Smith said. "Afghans were paying attention to that memoir. It confirmed their suspicions that the Americans were meddling."

"I'm sure [Karzai] felt vindicated by Gates' comments," van Bijlert said. "But the real problem was that the 2009 vote was really hugely fraudulent. There was fraud done on all sides, but it was strongest on the incumbent's side."

The rift, when it came, was accompanied by outbursts on both sides.

U.S. officials were withering about Karzai's overwrought encounters with them and proffered suggestions that the isolated leader in the Arg palace was abusing prescription drugs. Shortly before leaving his Kabul posting, former U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a crusty retired American army lieutenant general, had his own emotional moment when he slammed the "hurtful and inappropriate" comments by some Afghan "leaders" in a speech to hapless Afghan students.

Given how low the relationship had sunk, Karzai's subsequent refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would keep some U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the 2014 pullout should really have come as no surprise. But it did.

"Trying to psychoanalyze Karzai is not an easy game," Smith said. "Even those close to Karzai expected him to sign it."

Van Bijlert offers two possible explanations: "First, it is clear to him that the U.S. really wants the BSA and, in his view, if the U.S. really wants it, it can't be good for Afghanistan. Second, he wanted to the use the BSA negotiations to force the U.S. not to interfere with the [2014] election."

But "interference" means different things to different people. Indeed, few Afghans believe Karzai's promises that he plans to "move on" after his successor has been sworn in. In the lead-up to the April 5 poll, much attention has been focused on Karzai's new home situated just outside the Arg.

The post-presidential residence is close enough to the Arg to be covered by the tight security ring around the palace. Afghan leaders, in and out of office, need protection. Karzai need only recall former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah, who was castrated and hung by the Taliban in 1996 after the Afghan military crumbled due to the withdrawal of Russian aid.

But still, Karzai's upcoming proximity to the palace he has inhabited for over a decade is too close for comfort for many Afghans and the international community.

Once the polls have closed on Election Day, the focus will shift to the results as Karzai's favored candidate, former foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul, battles it out against frontrunners Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.

If none of the candidates get more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a runoff must be held, ideally sometime in May. That's when many analysts believe Karzai may insert himself again, playing a role in negotiating an outcome using the age-old Afghan mechanisms of consensus building.

It's the sort of elder statesman, loya jirga, fiery-speech thing that Karzai loves and the international community hates. But, as they say in French, on verra -- we'll see what happens next.

As for the big legacy questions, the experts say we still have to wait and see.

"The jury is still out," Smith said. "The real test will be in 2015, 2016, 2017, when Afghanistan will start to see sharp declines in foreign aid. We don't know how the Afghan government will do in the struggle to control significant parts of the territory. If the state survives, Karzai can claim, quite rightly, to be the father of the nation and his place in history will be assured."

If it doesn't, you only have to look to history and shudder. And that's one thing Afghan presidents know very well. The international community may lose patience, fall out of love, divorce, and even cut the alimony to their former local partners. It will just move on. Problem is, moving on will be far more difficult for Afghanistan. But on verra -- this particular chapter in Afghan history is still being written.

David Goldman/Pool/Getty Images


Why the Long Face?

How Secretary of State John Kerry could turn the ashes of Middle East peace into diplomacy that actually gets results.

Secretary of State John Kerry's push for Middle East peace has come to this sorry impasse: the Israelis demanding the United States release a traitor before they are willing to proceed with previously agreed releases of Palestinians, and the Palestinians playing for international recognition over U.S. objections. Put another way, the Israelis want to impose a penalty on their main international backer for moving forward on a plan that is clearly not of their making, while the Palestinians think they can circumvent Washington's main leverage over them, which is recognition of Palestine as a state. Suffice to say that it's pretty difficult to see how the negotiations proceed from here to a stable two-state solution, despite Kerry's frenetic efforts and best intentions.

Kerry's effort to start his tenure as secretary with a major peace initiative was a reasonable gambit: it is one of the few things countries in the region want that also aligns with U.S. interests. And it's certainly one of the only things ostensibly achievable by "smart power" alone. Many countries in the region argue that if only the United States would put a little effort and attention to the problem, if it would lean just a little on the Israelis over whom we have such enormous leverage, there could be justice for Palestinians, thus removing a major obstacle to public support for the United States throughout the region. Ambitious strategists in Washington take that even further -- envisioning a Middle East wherein the Arab states not only extend diplomatic recognition to Israel, but cooperate openly with Israel to counter Iran. It's an appealing vision, but runs aground on how very little each of the parties (including those pressing hardest for U.S. involvement) are willing to give to achieve those outcomes.

So here we are again, with Kerry left pleading that "the leaders have to lead and they have to be able to see a moment when it's there." The political heads of Israel and Palestine see a moment, but it's not the moment Kerry sees. More worryingly, the Obama administration cannot seem to grasp the fundamental contradiction in its approach to diplomacy. The problem with leading from behind is that it necessitates others leading from the front ... and if others were willing and able to lead, they wouldn't need United States involvement.

Perhaps Kerry will yet channel Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's inner Anwar Sadat and find Benjamin Netanyahu's inner Menachem Begin. But right now that has about the same odds as Warren Buffet's March Madness bracket bet. The smart money says that yet another push for Middle East peace will sink into the sands and Kerry will be left with the recriminations of all parties believing if only Washington had pushed others more, their preferred outcome could have been achieved. It will be a stinging defeat for the secretary, who alone in the Obama administration has argued for the peace process as a priority.

It should (but probably won't) occasion a reconsideration by the Obama White House of what diplomacy can achieve on its own. It should (but surely won't) occasion a reconsideration by the Obama White House of how their choices have diminished American standing in the world -- we are not more respected because they eschew a forceful role. Instead, as the Middle East peace negotiations illustrate, hesitance and unreliability causes other states to reposition themselves in ways that reduce our ability to affect them. Call it insulation from our indifference.

If the Middle East peace negotiations crumble -- much like negotiations to produce a unified opposition or alignment of U.S. and Russian interests in Syria, or negotiations to persuade Moscow to end its occupation of Crimea and quit its revanchist threats to any state that happens to have Russians among their population -- Kerry should pause and reconsider how he is approaching diplomacy, what he might do differently to produce better results. Here are five suggestions:

1.) Motion does not equal progress. Both Kerry and Secretary Hillary Clinton before him have operated on the "mileage plus" model of diplomacy, traveling constantly. Clinton even trumpeted it as a major achievement. There is advantage to showing up, but it is not the central element of a secretary's job nor the appropriate metric for determining effectiveness. Kerry should travel less, sending deputies and bringing leaders to Washington, tying his presence abroad to the concrete achievement of a diplomatic objective. The arrival of an American secretary of state should be a form of leverage to achieve diplomatic outcomes, not a routine part of the diplomatic process.

2.) Strengthen the institution. Most secretaries of state run the department from the seventh floor (the secretary's suite in Foggy Bottom), caring little about the foreign and civil service or the institutional weaknesses of the State Department. That absolutely should not be the case for an administration whose approach to the world is fundamentally diplomatic. The Obama administration is committed to reducing the role that military force plays in American strategy, but that cannot happen without a dramatic strengthening of the non-military means of national power. The Treasury Department has succeeded brilliantly in the past 10 years at developing new tools that can target sanctions on individuals, track terrorist money flows, and identify banks laundering money. The State Department is long overdue for just such a muscular effort to identify and develop new means of diplomatic leverage.

The State Department is also overdue for another Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review -- one that doesn't celebrate the process as its main achievement or recommend more senior positions for its organizational chart. Our diplomats deserve a secretary of state who will develop a vision for the organization that will inspire, orient, and involve them. They deserve investment in their professional education and development. They deserve a government that funds their activity as fulsomely as it does the military -- and one that then holds them as accountable for producing results. Kerry has involved himself in none of those things.

3.) Play team sports. Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made a joint appearance at the Munich Security Conference in an attempt to persuade the world that America was not withdrawing from the world. They made a joint appearance before Congress in an attempt to persuade wary legislators that the administration had a policy on Syria. Kerry and Hagel should make this a habit. President Obama's foreign policy is suffering from the widespread perception that military force is not an option. Closer and more visible cooperation across the Potomac River would go some way to deflecting that perception. Having the secretary of state lead the development of truly integrated strategies -- policies that have diplomatic, economic, and military components working in tandem to support clear political objectives and identifiable end states -- would go even further.

4.) Prioritize. Kerry has done this pretty well: One can see his priorities from the allocation of his time. The question is whether those are the right priorities. It does seem odd that Afghanistan figures so little, especially with the election looming and Obama's exit strategy so dependent on that election producing a cooperative political order -- instead of the country going up in flames, as Iraq has. Given the behavior of both Israel and the Palestinians, a shift in effort is in order: What about shoring up states like Jordan that have been a force for good for a future without a peace agreement and that have borne the brunt of a bad Syria policy? Or come up with a policy for dealing with Gen. Sisi's Egypt? Closer to home, energy issues and political change in Mexico are creating new opportunities for North American integration -- an enormous strategic opportunity Washington has failed to take advantage of.

5.) Stop compartmentalizing. The Obama administration persists in believing that its choices on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria do not affect how allies and enemies alike see the United States. It is a parallel to their belief that the wars are ending, when in fact all that is ending is our participation in them. The war in Iraq is not over for Iraqis; the war in Afghanistan will not be over for Afghans or Pakistanis. The administration develops exclusive policies without considering how they are fundamentally interrelated. For example, the administration continues to believe that even after the stand-off in Crimea, Russia will continue to advance the president's pet project of cooperative nuclear non-proliferation, including U.S. involvement in securing nuclear materials in Russia and upholding the Iran sanctions effort. That is transparently wishful thinking and it clouds the ability to fireproof the most important U.S. policies. What is needed is a perspective of how our actions in one arena will ricochet into others.

Israel and Palestine once again foregoing the opportunity for a peace treaty is a great disappointment, but Kerry could profitably reflect on the opportunities it provides to focus his attention and strengthen America's hand for future rounds. It is a silver lining worth grasping, not least by the secretary of state who invested so much in trying to foster a new era of defenseless diplomacy.

Ed Johnson for FP