Analysis: West wonders about Karzai

By ANDREW BUSHELL  |  July 16, 2002 at 4:00 AM
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai's behavior during and after the loya jirga grand council, followed by the assassination of a second government minister in recent months, is breeding concern among American and British diplomats in the region that the West may have backed the wrong man to reinvent Afghanistan.

Fueling such fears is the transformation in Karzai's attitude and rhetoric since December. At the U.N.-convened Bonn meeting that established the interim Afghan government, Karzai adopted a conciliatory attitude and clearly positioned himself as the West's candidate -- the one Afghan politician without blood on his hands, who was anxious to guide his country using democratic principles.

A few short months later, the delegates to the donor implementation conference -- most of them Western -- saw a very different side of the man when Karzai thumped his hands on the table and said, "We will report to the donors (about where the money is being spent) when we decide to report to the donors."

When Karzai's top lieutenant at the time, newly minted Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, entered the room at the conference, American Ambassador Robert Finn remarked, "Here comes the father of the bride." While the ambassador would not clarify his comments for the record, another Western diplomat said: "He means the bride of Frankenstein."

If Western diplomats wondered in March whether they might have created a monster, their doubts would not have been put to rest by Karzai's tactics during the loya jirga in June.

In his opening speech to some 1,500 delegates from all corners of Afghanistan, Karzai referred to his election as head of state in the current transitional government in the past tense -- two days before the vote was scheduled to take place. He also refused to allow the delegates to propose names for nomination and to debate on the first day, reportedly fearing a resurrection of the candidacy of the former king -- Mohammed Zahir Shah.

There are also troubling allegations that he is unwilling to interfere with politically motivated arrests made by members of the Northern Alliance, the largely Tajik group of warlords who resisted the Taliban and now hold powerful positions in Karzai's government. And Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, lost a key element of his uneasy coalition on July 2, when one of his three vice presidents -- one of the few Pashtuns of influence within the Northern Alliance -- was killed in the streets of Kabul in broad daylight. The perpetrators of the assassination are as yet unknown.

Appeasing his Northern Alliance bedfellows and navigating the quagmire of Afghan politics was always going to require compromises. But what bothers Western diplomats is that even Karzai's instincts do not appear democratic. Over cries of outrage from loya jirga delegates, for example, he single-handedly blocked discussion about creating a national parliament and instead formed a non-representative committee to study the prospect.

One diplomat, referring to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden -- both of whom were once supported by the United States -- told United Press International, "Look, some stupid moves have been made in the past. Do we learn? I don't know if we ever do, but we keep hoping that we'll learn our lesson and do something right."

Only the most naive would be surprised that Afghanistan still lacks a democracy a mere seven months after 23 years of war. And clearly Karzai has had to invoke certain national themes to pacify his coterie of warlords. But the actions that have followed the rhetoric have left more than one Western diplomat shaking their heads. In the words of a French international worker, "Where is the man who we thought would build a democratic culture here?"

Advocates of democracy have noted such principles are perhaps more about political culture than about style of regime. The Afghan people need to learn democracy by doing -- a practice that a growing number of Western observers believe is not likely to come any time soon under Karzai.

One British diplomat at the loya jirga mused aloud on hearing Karzai's opening speech, "I once heard a similar speech as a child, but it was given in German rather than in Persian."

Topics: Ashraf Ghani
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