MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai gestures as he speaks during a ceremony in Kabul on January 4. Some worry that Karzai's seemingly unstable statements -- such as threatening to join the Taliban -- paint a portrait of a dangerous leader.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Paul Miller is an assistant professor of international security studies at the National Defense University. He served as director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council staff from September 2007 to September 2009.
There is a major cottage industry among Washington analysts in Karzaiology. Karzaiologists spend weeks and months pouring over the tea leaves of the Afghan president's latest outburst or rash decision and periodically emerge to pronounce upon the United States' prospects for success in Afghanistan. I was a practiced hand in Karzaiology for years. According to the Washington Post, "There is near-universal agreement among top U.S. officials involved in Afghanistan that Karzai's behavior and leadership have a direct bearing on the outcome of the multinational counterinsurgency mission."
What worries the Karzaiologists most is that Hamid Karzai appears quite insane. He is rumored to erupt in periodic emotional outbursts. He threatens to join the Taliban. He tried to ban security barriers in Kabul in 2006 and private security firms nationwide in 2010. He exhibits paranoia about Britain, the United States, and, especially, Pakistan.
There is a variant of this view, held by the likes of journalist and activist Sarah Chayes and others, that says that Karzai's government is neither weak nor crazy: it is in fact highly capable, just at the wrong things. It is highly capable of graft, corruption, extortion, and tribal nepotism. Karzai is the head of a well-oiled tribal kleptocracy, in this view.
Regardless, all members of the School of Karzaiology agree: Karzai is massively important and hugely dangerous.
This view is at least vastly overstated, if not outright wrong. It commits two basic errors. First, it underestimates Karzai's rationality. Second, it overstates his actual importance.
Karzai is a much shrewder political operator than U.S. analysts give him credit for. Western analysts have a tendency to fall prey to a perspective bias. They expect that Karzai views himself and his situation the same way we do; since his actions make no sense to us, they can't possibly make much sense to the man himself. Therefore, Karzai is "emotional," "unstable," "paranoid," and "irrational."
But Karzai is acting fairly rationally given the constraints and pressures he faces. He is head of a government that for most intents and purposes does not function, no matter what he decides. He faces an insurgency that seems to have staying power and an international force that does not. He faces a parliament that is unwieldy at best, openly hostile at worst. He "appoints" governors who likely still have their own private armies (which he lacks), who often wield more effective power than he does, and who only recently took sides in a ruinous civil war -- the renewal of which is always a tacit threat hanging like a Damocles Sword over Karzai's head. Karzai faces an impossible balancing act.
But in response, Karzai does not have many options. His "decisions" don't actually change reality so much as they express intent or exhibit symbols. In the face of his many challenges, almost the only tools he has are words. If he wants to protest air strikes or home raids, he makes dramatic statements about a "foreign occupation." If he feels threatened by conservatives and warlords, he starts to burnish his Islamic credentials and sound populist rhetoric. If he believes the Taliban are winning and the international community is withdrawing, he threatens to switch sides. None of these words stem from real beliefs so much as they simply reflect whichever pressure Karzai feels most urgently at the moment.
In response to Chayes and others (whose views and work I greatly respect), who argue that Karzai does in fact head a highly capable network, I respond that capacity is not fungible. Even if it is true that Karzai heads a highly effective organized crime ring (and I think the thesis is overstated), the Karzai network's capacity for extracting illicit resources cannot simply be rerouted to productive ends, like building roads and schools, if Karzai had a sudden change of heart, or a sudden heart-attack. Governance requires fundamentally different skills than corruption. A change at the top does not change the skills, abilities, and inclinations of a whole network. The Afghan government and the Karzai network are equally incapable of governing, regardless of their skill at criminal enterprises.
Karzai's "decisions," then, are not public policy: they are rhetoric. The Afghan government is incapable of having, much less implementing, a public policy. The fight to persuade Karzai to make the "right decision" on any given policy issue is really an effort to make his government appear more attractive to Afghan moderates. The effort to make him a more effective "manager" is about renewing his appeal to western donors. Policy towards Karzai is mostly an effort to improve Kabul's image, not capacity.
That is important, but it is far less important than most Karzaiologists will tell you. The counterinsurgency campaign will ultimate succeed or fail based on a thousand other factors, not Karzai's rhetoric. The war will be won or lost by how well our soldiers fare against the Taliban; how sustainable the internationally-sponsored economic reconstruction effort is, and how well local government officials -- not Karzai -- meet the needs of Afghans on the ground.