U.S. Prepared To Work Around Karzai If Necessary

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U.S. officials need to engage Afghan President Hamid Karzai as they craft a new strategy for Afghanistan. Alex Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, tells Steve Inskeep that U.S. officials are considering options that work with Karzai, and options that work around him.


Alex Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace is thinking how to use that leverage. He just met with U.S. officials in Afghanistan.

Mr. ALEX THIER (U.S. Institute of Peace): Clearly people are thinking in two directions. We have a strategy to work with Hamid Karzai and we have a strategy to work around Hamid Karzai. In order to work with Hamid Karzai, there has been a lot of pressure placed on his decision to appoint new ministers in key ministries and new governors in important provinces. He's going to be inaugurated on Thursday, then he's expected immediately before or immediately after to announce a new cabinet. And so the great parlor game at the moment in Kabul is who's going to be in that cabinet? Is it going to be the slate of warlords who got him elected? Or is it going to be technocrats who have worked successfully to fight the problems?

INSKEEP: Hasn't Karzai already made a statement, and I'm paraphrasing here, to the effect that, sure, corruption is a problem and I want to battle corruption, but this isn't about changing personnel? He has essentially implied that he wants to keep as many of the same old guys as possible.

Mr. THIER: He used the phrase administrative corruption to suggest somehow that the problem with corruption in Afghanistan lies in the bowels of ministries with low level officials. In reality, the corruption, I think, rises to the very top. For instance, it's Hajj season right now in Afghanistan in the Muslim world.

INSKEEP: This is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are supposed to make at least once in their lives.

Mr. THIER: Exactly. And the ministry of Hajj was reportedly given $70 million to move Afghans to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. And it's reported that the minister of Hajj, who is a crony of Hamid Karzai, stole about $20 million. And so you're not talking about some small official asking for a bribe for a form. You're talking about pretty significant corruption at the highest levels of government.

INSKEEP: What about the other option, working around Karzai?

Mr. THIER: We have not taken seriously the idea that Afghanistan is one of the most highly decentralized countries in the world, and there's a lot more that we can do to channel assistance as well as funds into local government structures and indeed in traditional structures that are closest to the problem and therefore often know best how to most effectively spend the money that comes their way.

INSKEEP: Sounds promising, but if you work around the central government, don't you undermine the central government that you intended to support?

Mr. THIER: Well, in fact, I think that working around the government is ultimately going to be one of the strongest ways to support that government. The legitimacy of that central government does not depend on its ability to control everything, because it can't. The legitimacy of that government depends on the people getting basic services, and when the Afghan people have greater security, have greater justice and great access to resources, they will be much more comfortable with the role that the central government plays.

And so I think we need to do more to figure out how to put the Afghans in a real leadership position in the next two years so that the decisions that they start to make about their own country are truly their own and that the risks that they take are also their own.

INSKEEP: Is it even possible to encourage the Afghans to take more responsibility at the same time, if the decision is so made, to increase the number of troops, to increase U.S. government involvement, to bypass the central government, to get more involved on a local level?

Mr. THIER: I think it is possible. If you look, for instance, at something called the National Solidarity Program, which is a program that was designed by the Afghan government with international funding, they have managed to deliver assistance projects to over 22,000 villages throughout the country. And a fascinating statistic is that we hear all about the Taliban burning down schools. The National Solidarity Program has built hundreds of schools with local labor and local decision making. And of all of those schools, in some of the most difficult areas of the country, only two have been attacked.

INSKEEP: Oh, because that's a political disaster, if you're the Taliban, to go into a school that local people have built with their own hands and burn it down.

Mr. THIER: Exactly. Local ownership equals local protection. And so I do think that this idea of really giving the Afghans a greater stake in what's happening right now actually ends up with them really owning the problem much more, which is ultimately what we need to see happen.

INSKEEP: Alex Thier is just back from Afghanistan. He's director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thanks for coming by.

Mr. THIER: My pleasure.

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