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article imageOp-Ed: Potential shift in US strategy if Karzai wins

By Ozair Tukhi     Aug 24, 2009 in World
Should Karzai win, the Obama administration would be facing a new challange which requires a new strategy; that is, how to deal with a future Karzai government, considering the administration's publicly expressed discontent with his current government.
The second Afghan presidential election, marred by violence, took place arguably successfully. What is now important is the outcome of the election and how the Obama administration adjusts US strategy in Afghanistan. The US Afghan strategy will eventually be two-pronged: how to tackle increasing Taliban insurgencies and how to deal with the new Afghan government, which largely depends on who the winner is. Should president Karzai be the winner of the election, the Obama administration would be facing a new challenge, in view of the administration’s relationship with the incumbent, which requires a new strategy; that is, how to deal with president Karzai for the next 5 years.
One strategic approach is for the Obama administration to reconcile with president Karzai and put behind the frictions that were publicly expressed by the administration ever since its inception. The rational for this approach would be that the incumbent is the democratically elected leader of Afghanistan, therefore, the US, respecting Afghanistan’s integrity, will work with his future government, and so ensuring the Afghan people the US is not meddling in their internal affairs. This approach makes quite sense, but the problem with it is that it will likely be interpreted in one of the two following ways: either the Obama administration was naïve in foreign policy when it publicly distanced itself and criticized the current Karzai’s government, or the US strategy in Afghanistan, a Bush legacy, has failed; and the US, losing control over the country, has to compromise now with the ever increasing influence of the regional powerful countries, pursuing their regional agendas in Afghanistan.
Another approach would be to keep president Karzai at arm’s length as now; instead focus the attention on building closer ties with regional powerbrokers, thus bypassing the president. This strategy will further undermine central government’s rule over different areas of the country and, alternatively, strengthen different parts of the country by giving them more autonomy over their internal affairs. Bypassing the central government thus is, in fact, undermining an already weak and fledgling institution. What it will actually do is further enhance the neighboring countries’ influence over different areas of the country, which would be counterproductive to US goal and strategy in the region. The US should not be under any disillusionment that it can readily break different Afghan powerbrokers’ entrenched ties and loyalties to Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. These deep-rooted ties were built during the Soviet occupation and further deepened as the US abandoned Afghanistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, from the perspective of nation-building and state-building, further weakening of the central government would prove inhibitive.
Another strategy would be to make president Karzai accept the creation of a new post, the so-called CEO of Afghanistan, which has at times been discussed in the media over the past few months. This is similar to prime minister except it is not an elected position. The “CEO” will be responsible for running the government while the president is busy with the politics of the country. While this will undermine president Karzai’s control over the government operations, it may potentially prove effective in improving governance and management of the country and its resources.
When this idea emerged and initially covered in the media, Zalmai Khalilzad was widely discussed as the desired candidate of the US for the post. But the idea has gradually waned ever since, as regional countries expressed concern. Though they cited Afghans would reject the idea calling it direct US interference in their internal affairs as the reason; the fact is that the idea of Khalilzad as the “CEO” of Afghanistan would put regional countries influencing Afghan politics in a discomfort zone. Then again, Khalilzad may be the best option for the Obama administration to bring the Afghan political landscape under control. Another ideal candidate for the position would be Ashraf Ghani, a contender in this election; though he has repeatedly rejected the idea calling it impractical.
Irrespective of whoever the candidate for the “CEO” post may be, this strategy has its shortcomings as well. The first relates to the ethnically polarized nature of the Afghan politics. If the president happens to be of one ethnicity, chances are the so-called prime minister (CEO) post will most likely be given to someone from a different ethnicity not necessarily based on much needed competency but rather based on political clout, which will again defeat the purpose. The second relates to the conflict that it may create between the president and the “CEO” over how to run the government, especially if the appointment is politically motivated or somehow imposed on president Karzai by the US. However, even if the appointment is merit-based, the president, having the ultimate power, may impede initiatives undertaken to improve governance for political reasons. Therefore, no significant changes will result from the creation of the new post, if it possesses limited power and authority to plan and implement improvement initiatives. It may even create more conflict and confusion.
Another alternative scenario would be a mixed one, where the Obama administration sends reconciliatory gestures to the new Karzai government, and assurances that Washington will work with his future government despite past negative comments about his current government. And at the same time, to improve government efficacy and efficiency, it convinces Karzai to create a new appointed post responsible for overhauling and overseeing central government operations. Furthermore, as part of US efforts to economic development, some level of direct cooperation with local leaders may also be deemed necessary to better coordinate development initiatives at the local level. In order to prevent further political disintegration of the country, however, such initiatives should strictly be limited to economic development; otherwise they will further undermine the central government.
The above are a few potential strategic options the Obama administration may embark on should president Karzai be re-elected. Whatever strategic approach the Obama administration may adopt, it should address both effective governance and improved security in an intertwined manner, if the goal is to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan. The reason for this is the fact that bad government or lack of government; and insecurity and insurgency are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they reinforce each other, as insecurity affects government provision of services, establishing the rule of law and serving justice; and bad government and/or lack of government, on the other hand, is a potential root cause of insecurity and insurgency. Insecurity also impedes private investment, improvement in education and economic development. Moreover, efficient and effective governance and management of the country’s resources will potentially reduce insurgencies as they produce tangible economic development, creating jobs and means of livelihood for destitute rural Afghans, some of whom are often forced to join insurgents for economic reasons. People will likely reject the insurgents when they see tangible economic development, justice being served and the rule of law prevails in their communities.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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