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Afghanistan: It is time for Karzai to step down

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In Brief

It is time for President Hamid Karzai to bow out gracefully, even if he is declared as the winner of last month's election. His regime is tainted by allegations of corruption, maladministration and electoral fraud to the extent that he is no longer capable of leading Afghanistan for another term with an acceptable degree of legitimacy.

Karzai assumed power nearly eight years ago, with more national and international support than any previous Afghan ruler had enjoyed. The Afghan people had suffered from 24 years of warfare, bloodshed and devastation: the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, followed by internecine conflict among various Afghan warring groups and the Pakistan-backed medievalist Islamic rule of the Taliban in the 1990s. A majority of them desperately yearned for a constructive and effective national leader. The US-led intervention in response to the 11 September 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the US, resulting in the toppling of the Taliban regime and the instalment of an internationally backed administration under Karzai, provided a unique opportunity. The US and its allies invested very heavily in the new Afghan leader with an expectation that he would prove instrumental in working with them to generate the necessary conditions for democracy, stability and security – enabling the Afghans to rebuild their lives and their country.


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Karzai has confounded the expectations. He has failed to open a new chapter in Afghan history in order to put the country on a stable course of change and development. Instead of discarding old political norms and practices, which had traditionally marred Afghanistan’s political evolution, he has reinforced them as a basis for ensuring his position. He has presided over the politics of patronage, based on nepotism, corruption and political favouritism. He has behaved, more or less, like a traditional tribal head rather than a forward-looking national leader. In the process, he has not been able to maintain the support of either his own ethnic Pashtun cluster, which forms some 42 per cent of the Afghan population and to which the Taliban belong, or the non-Pashtun ethnic groups in the country. Meanwhile, he has increasingly been at odds with the very international forces, especially the US and the UK, which have so far safeguarded his limited rule over Kabul and a few other parts of the country.

He won the presidential election of 2004 – the first of its kind in Afghan history – with 55 per cent of the vote, based on a voter turnout of 70 per cent. He could have used this popular mandate to build a clean, credible and functional administration and promote the causes of institutionalisation of politics rather than personalisation of politics, which had traditionally marred Afghanistan. Merit has figured little in his filling of key governmental positions. Family, tribal, ethnic and factional connections have been the order of the day. He has made no noticeable effort to generate a constructive working relationship between the executive and the parliament, and has done whatever it takes to manipulate the legislature and judiciary in support of his dysfunctional leadership and administration.

To win the 2009 presidential election, he has shown no moral qualms about engaging in opportunistic actions and stitching up alliances with unsavoury figures. His signing, shortly before the election, of a bill to empower Shia’ite men to refuse their wives food if they failed to have sex with them four nights a week was purely for electoral purposes. It was designed to please a particular Shia leader, Sheikh Mohammad Asif Mohseni, and to entice his supporters, who constitute a proportion of Afghanistan’s 15 to 20 per cent Shia population, to vote for him. Similarly, his alliances with a number of notorious warlords, such as a former defence minister, Mohammad Fahim, an Uzbek leader, Rashid Dostum, and a Pashtun strongman, and now governor of the eastern province of Nangarhar, Gul Agha Shirzai, have all been made for a similar reason. These men, together with some members of Karzai’s family, have been high on the lists of the international community for alleged corrupt practices and human rights violations. Yet Karzai has been willing to incur widespread criticisms in order to have them on his side.

While there is no evidence that Karzai had a direct hand in rigging last month’s election, there is plenty of evidence that intimidation, multiple voting and ballot box stuffing on the part of Karzai’s supporters were widespread – something that has now been confirmed by many international observers. A premature claim of victory by Karzai’s campaign chief, barely before any votes had been counted, gave an early indication that Karzai was in deep trouble in winning the election in the first round. The claim was made to cover up as quickly as possible Karzai’s disadvantage arising from the very low voter turnout in general (less than 40 per cent), and substantially so in the southern provinces where Karzai had hoped to do well among the Pashtun voters but could not – largely due to the Taliban’s threats.

It is not surprising that the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, reportedly raised the election irregularities with Karzai shortly after the poll, but only to be rebuffed at the cost of a further downturn in Karzai’s relations with the Obama Administration.
The Karzai leadership has proved to be very ineffective for a majority of the Afghan people and the international community, especially the US. Karzai will carve a better place for himself in history if he now leaves the field on his own accord, and allows a new leader and administration to take over. The change will not solve Afghanistan’s daunting problems in the short run, but it may help the processes of the country’s stabilisation and reconstruction in the long run.

This article first appeared here in the Guardian.

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