President Hamid Karzai will go down in Afghan history as a weird sort – of politician, of man, who dresses with flagrant panache, favoring a mix of traditional outfits and English tailored clothes and who lives a strangely, elegantly mixed up pro-Western and half-traditional life, guarded, in Kabul.
In his politics, too, he favors a mix of traditional tribal politics and tailored Western media-baiting demagoguery. That this mix is hard to come by is an understatement. In his person, in the political stances he’s taken, Karzai, viewed by his person and priorities, is downright baffling. He is patrician through and through but seems approachable; he is admired by General Stanley McChrystal, disfavored by General David Petraeus and has been pushed and pulled by scandals and blood-soaked news over two American administrations and yet he stands, though as one who looks like he’s surprised he’s made it so far. Karzai is a hard one to beat. The thing is, though, he’ll need to make it so that for the sake of Afghanistan’s secure future someone else will have to outdo him as president, even if Karzai himself cannot, will not be beat.
Known for the last decade and more as the president whose family runs Afghanistan, President Karzai is running out of room to maneuver both Afghanistan’s future and his family’s fortunes: he will soon be term limited in office and will have to leave his role (rather more, truly his “office”) in April 2014 for another man to take up. What will happen to Afghanistan then? What will happen in Afghanistan then?
And that’s the thing. More than his troubling moves to require the Afghan military stand on its own capacities and refrain from seeking help from NATO air strikes and more than the future and stability of the Afghan military on which depends the tone if not the conduct of U.S. foreign and humanitarian policy, everything turns on the results of the 2014 elections. Everything turns on who stands victorious as the President of Afghanistan come 2014 and whether his final standing is challenged by his opposition in that electoral battle.
Everything turns on the determination that in whatever minimalist way Afghanistan is, in fact, a democracy. That, whatever corruption that plagues it, Afghanistan politics is in fact determined by political interests that transparently seek a route to declare their wants and desires through individuals who make themselves available to seek high office. Everything turns on the determination that Afghanistan, stable and some what not entirely dangerous for the world at large is not, was not so only through the sheer willpower of one Hamid Karzai.
This is the Madisonian turn. This Madisonian view of Afghan democracy would go far to assure international donors and funders that the country is not a lost cause, that, though the writing on the wall says different, it is not a failed state.
And the fact that international, Afghan and U.S. based media has reported hardly a peep about the 2014 elections is a bit worrisome. No, it’s a lot worrisome. (The last piece the New York Times published ran in October 2012.) For 2014 will determine who gets to steer Afghanistan, corruption-ridden, resource rich, to some not-too desolate future. He, the next President of Afghanistan, will get to run the tables on the “War on Terror” game in Central and South Asia. All eyes will be on him—and it will most assuredly be a “him—and how he works with and maneuvers past Pakistan’s increasingly chaotic politics. And he’ll have to be better at all that than Karzai has shown himself to be. He will have to be a stronger personality than weird o’ Hamid Karzai. This, even though Karzai has no doubt done a tremendous job to hold onto his office—charges of high corruption notwithstanding, of course.
Finally, that man will have to show that local politics in Afghanistan can run by means other than vacillating corruption, that clientelism is not the only way to get things done there. That donor funding for welfare increasing projects can be implemented without greasing the wheel and that billions of dollars poured into Afghanistan stay in Afghanistan and work to the benefit of the Afghan people. Success in demonstrating all of this will be a demonstration of the outlines of Afghanistan’s future. Failure will mean nothing short of panic in all the circles that might soon get staffed by vultures.
To achieve success, for his successor as much as for himself, President Karzai will have to think about the ways he can clear the path for the next generation of leaders in Afghanistan. One of the heart-breaking aspects of Karzai’s presidency, of course, has been that no such generation was on hand. Or, if it was on hand, hidden away somewhere it’s membership wasn’t available for public comment. Karzai will need to speak to the future, for the future clearly, transparently, without mendacity. Karzai will have to hold to his pledge that the elections will turn on April 2014 and he will have to be seen as not dominating the results of the process therein.
The last thing Afghanistan needs is a Russia-styled “democratic” turnover in office: Putin for Medvedev, Medvedev for Putin and Putin, once again. It would, indeed, be a shame if it turned out that, no, Afghanistan needs to have precisely that kind of turnover in the highest office in the land.
(Photo credit: Getty)