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January 30, 2006

Karzai in London: Khan or Con? Expert on Afghanistan S J Masty reports from Kabul on how Karzai is doing

Posted by S. J. Masty

As Afghan President Hamid Karzai comes to London this week for a two day international donor conference, expert on Afghanistan S J Masty reports from Kabul on how Karzai is doing.

KABUL - Last week, the sneering was heavy around the guacamole dip deep inside the US Embassy in Kabul, safely behind umpteen barricades and a gross of Gurkha mercenaries.

One regional policy expert sniffed:

No guts and all talk. Hamid's going nowhere.
I relaxed once I realised that the ominous crackling sound was not distant gunfire, but someone chewing tortilla chips with his mouth open. Another policy expert, who is never permitted to leave the compound except in an armoured car, scowled:
He's not brave, that's his problem.
Karzai, you remember, whose aristocratic father was murdered by the Taliban, spent yonks fighting deep inside Talib country where, if that was not enough, he was nearly vapourised by incompetent allied bombing that killed several people standing right beside him. Hardly a nancy-boy, our Mr Karzai.

"Mmmmph", sneered another gringo, wrist-deep in salsa.

I beamed with satisfaction, for these are the kinds of sources who are dependably wrong. Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai, whom I have known and liked for the past 22 years, is ensured a clean bill of health if these fellows think that hes finished.

My brothers-in-cheesedip rarely get out of their security-obsessed embassy long enough to meet any Afghans apart from 45-minute meetings crowded into ministries. And whether or not they read any Afghan history, they missed Kipling, who in a chapter preface to the novel Naulakha, wrote:

It does no good for the Christian health to hustle the Asian brown,
For the Christian riles, and the Asian smiles and weareth the Christian down.
At the end of the fight is a tombstone white on the grave of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: "a fool lies here, who tried to hurry the East".
Conversely, Karzai follows the advice, not of these low-level gringo advisers, but of the greatest Muslim poet, the Sufi known to his fellow Afghans as Maulana Jalaludin Balkhi (elsewhere as Rumi). The 13th Century sage from northern Afghanistan advises us to "work like a stream", quietly, night and day, year in and year out, moving mountains as needs be. This is what Karzai has done, and not even a cynic and implacable enemy of the Bushskyites such as me can gainsay his enormous achievement.

Three years ago in Afghanistan, every defense or major law enforcement agency the monopoly on people with legal guns was controlled not only by the Northern Alliance (the equivalent of the Southwest of England), but by warlords from the tiny Panshir Valley (the equivalent of the fag-end of Cornwall). These included torturers such as "Marshal" Fahim (granted his title by an adoring Donald Rumsfeld), who was then defense minister and is now a wealthy nobody. The best of the Panshiri warlords now heads the democratic opposition, while the worst are nowhere to be seen. There are some educated, civilised Panshiris in government (the courtly chairman of the Central Bank is, I believe, a good example) but the Panshiri gunmen are gone and the nation sleeps easier, especially the Hazaras, a gentle, Shia minority who were slaughtered like animals by Panshiri warlords under their late strongman Ahmed Shah Massood.

Similarly, in a deft manoeuvre that should leave every dentist in awe, Karzai swiftly, quietly and painlessly extracted the governor of Herat, Ismail Khan; a feat that ranks with Saint Jerome pulling the thorn from the lion's infected paw. I am still not sure how Hamid managed it, for the Herat governor, once a renowned freedom-fighter, retained virtually all of the tens of millions of dollars earned in customs duties at the nearby Iran border, and spent it on improving Herat thus retaining the loyalty of his constituents. He was the prime unmovable object, and Karzai was an unlikely irresistible force. Yet today, Ismail Khan sits peacefully in Kabul, in a small room buried in charts and electrical diagrams, as Minister for Power. Herat's fortunes go into the national coffers as they should, and a talented if once unruly governor now works for the national interest.

In the past few months, President Karzai declared that he would start to sack non-performing or corrupt governors, and a once-powerful and unhelpful governor of Helmand is now out. In Balkh province, two senior officials were recently sacked for corruption, and in December, Karzai signed a tough, new law creating speedy courts and a special enforcement body to fight narco-traffickers. He has kept on course and delivered on threats that few took seriously.

It is an impressive record, and Afghans recognise the depth of Karzai's accomplishments, but it is not enough for some of the ignorant foreign occupiers, mostly naive, neoconservatives who still believe that people in 5,000-year-old cultures can be turned into little, cookie-cutter Republicans and Democrats as fast as a CD-ROM disk can install "plug-and-play democracy". According to recent polls, Afghans trust Karzai to know what's best for the country, far above other sources of advice. So Afghanistan is passing the IQ test, but the lower level foreign Munchkins often miss the point. Not so for the new US ambassador, Ronald Neuman, a charming, old school, career diplomat and respected Arabist, who spent some of his youth in Kabul when his father was US ambassador there years ago. Neuman is a big change from his predecessor, the hated bully and vulgarian, neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad, now busy making enemies as US ambassador to Iraq. Neuman finesses America out of the spotlight and into the traditional Hollywood role played by Ronald Reagan, as the hero's best friend.

Karzai's biggest challenge is fighting the surge in opium production, metastasised into new provinces after two years of lacklustre eradication. Karzai has barely stopped beating the drum for eradication in the past six months, pounding the podium at a speech last week announcing that:

either we eradicate poppy or poppy eradicates us.
He is probably right, for the spread of Afghan narco-traffickers threatens to make hairy-chested, macho Colombian mafiosi look like Girl Guides.

Whether he succeeds, depends on several things and several participants. His government has targeted, for eradication, the wealthier districts in the heavier poppy-producing provinces rather than assault the poor. So if most Afghans recognise that government is fair, and if eradication is successful, then Karzai's government will strengthen considerably, as people come to respect the first Afghan national government with real nationwide enforcement power in 25 years. Afghans, living in a society more complex than ours, appreciate strength and have infallible radar with which to detect bluffing.

Conversely, if eradication proves to be another damp squib, either in the face of gunfire or merely hamstrung by the complicated logistics, next year poppies will grow on every roof and window box, and perceived impotence will invite a million challenges to Karzai and his government, from inside and outside. Failure to fight poppies effectively may indeed end democracy, as Karzai implied.

The success of the entire Afghan occupation hangs in large part on the British troops now going into Helmand, the hotbed of poppy farming and armed opposition to the foreign presence. First, our troops will provide security for the eradication effort if it comes under fire, as it may. Secondly, they move into a region inflamed by American troops and their high-altitude bombing, kicking down doors and (in the eyes of the locals) defiling Pushtoon womenfolk. US officials say privately that these practices have been abandoned for a year or more, but President Karzai has not stopped complaining in public, proof that it remains a thorny local issue whether currently justified or not. British and continental troops, taking over the South West as the US focuses its interests in the Eastern Provinces, may help to reduce local anxiety and, one hopes, armed opposition.

The weakest performance in post-war Afghanistan comes from under-funded and often incompetently run development projects. Years after the invasion, the economy is still rotten and many roads are atrocious, even in peaceful regions of which there are many. Much is due to mistaken starts and undelivered funding. Some programmes are successes but none of it is Karzai's responsibility, for these activities are almost wholly controlled by gringo embassies and agencies.

So Hamid Karzai comes cap-in-hand to London, but not without an admirable track record, and for a cause in which the West has a large stake. Walking away from Afghanistan altogether (a strategy at which Western governments excel) will merely replay the 1990s, from the northward sweep of armed, ultra-conservative Pushtoons to another tug-o-war over Kabul, to Western diplomatic ostracism, to the return of something nasty, Islamist and rich like Al Qaeda. The likely alternative is a penny-pinching death by slow haemorrhage, never giving the Afghan patient enough financial haemoglobin to recover but never letting him die, generating Western military casualties as a result. The third option, the only good one, is getting other countries to share the costs borne chiefly by the US and Britain. Yet the Afghan president has faced long odds before so while impatient Westerners throw impotent, little hissy-fits, and countries outside of the English-speaking world stare at the floor and jam their hands into their pockets, depend on Hamid Karzai to keep working like a stream.
S J Masty 2006

S J Masty advises governments on public policy communications.

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I am a fan of Kipling - but have never heard of "the novel Naulakha"

Please enlighten me.

Posted by: Jane at January 30, 2006 04:58 PM

"Expert on Afghanistan" S J Masty describes himself thus:

S J Masty advises governments on public policy communications.
The article claims Masty in based in Kabul. Can we infer from this that Masty is advising the Afghan government on "strategic communications"? Ie is this felllow Masty a PR man for the Afghan government? In which case, why the hell should we believe a word he says.

Posted by: David H at January 30, 2006 05:04 PM

For Jane, I am given to understand that Naulakha means nine lakhs (900,000) and is a novel that Kipling co-authored with his brother-in-law, Wolcott Balestier, in 1892. It is also the name of the home that he built in Vermont at the same time. I have not read the novel, but i just bought a copy at a second-hand bookstore to take back to kabul next week. kipling fans who have tried to track down this quote often fail because, being a chapter preface, it never gets included in the 'complete' collections of that great man's verse.

For the ill-mannered David H, I advise a variety of clients on public information and public policy education, in Africa and South Asia, including some work with a small part of the Afghan government, but neither with the Presidency nor with the palace. So nobody employs me to plump for the Afghan government, and if I did I would declare it to SAU readers or recuse myself. In this piece I took some care to distance myself and my afghan client's opinions from the immediate issue on which i work.

Over the past 22 years I have spent about half my working life in and around Afghanistan, including work for major NGOs, for the British and American governments and the World Bank, including more than ten years of development work and a few travels with the mujahideen. I happen to have known Mr Karzai for the same period. As for whether you can, or should, believe a word that I write, I cannot confess to being very interested.

Posted by: s masty at January 30, 2006 05:47 PM

I do not know of this Kipling novel - nor of this quote. If accurate, Kipling repeats himself. In the intrduction to his "Collected Poems" we find:

"The end of the fight
Is a tombstone white
And the name of the late deceased"

"An epitaph drear"
A fool lies here
That tried to hussle the East"

Posted by: Joe Connors at February 26, 2006 12:18 AM
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