Every Afghan ruler has one fear and one hope, and Hamid Karzai, just confirmed as President of Afghanistan for a second term, is no exception. The fear is that of ending up as Shah Shujaa. The hope is to become like Emir Abdulrahman.
Although from different dynasties, the two rulers had much in common.
Both had to suffer exile, civil war and bloody family feuds before reaching the top of the greasy pole. Both won the throne thanks to British backing, respectively after the first and second Anglo-Afghan wars. Throughout their reigns, both were on British payroll, each collecting the equivalent of $15000 a month. Both were involved in wars that, today, would be designated as “ethnic cleansing”: Shujaa against Uzbeks and Abdulrahman against the Hazara. Both ceded Afghan territory to the British: Shujaa’s gift was Peshawar while Abdulrahman accepted the Durand Line that put half the Pushtuns under British rule.
However, they had different fates.
Afghans saw Shujaa, who ruled twice between 1803 and 1809 and then between 1838 and 1842, as the man who helped the British dominate Afghanistan. Abdulrahman who ruled between 1866 and 1901, on the other hand, has entered Afghan folklore as the ruler who ended British domination and restored national independence. Shujaa was murdered by his own people who celebrated his assassination for seven days.
Abdulrahman became one of few Afghan rulers to die peacefully in their beds and their homes, and was mourned as “the father of the nation.”
The reason why the two men ended up differently must be sought in their different approaches to what has always been the burning issue of Afghan politics: the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Shujaa, who had arrived in the baggage of a British-led mercenary army, did all he could to prolong the presence of foreign troops. Most Afghans hated him for it.
Abdulrahman, also installed as Emir by the British, managed to get foreign troops out, and most Afghans loved him for it. He remains the most popular figure in Afghan history. Now, fast forward to today and Karzai; everyone knows that Karzai is where he is today thanks to Americans.
In 2001, Karzai was an exile in Washington, running a kebab house and plotting to become the Taliban’s ambassador in the US. A year later, after the first American choice, Abdul Haq, was killed by the Taliban, Karzai had become the de facto ruler of Afghanistan.
The way Karzai achieved power was similar to that of Shah Shujaa and Emir Abdulrahman, indeed of most rulers of Afghanistan during its three centuries of existence as an independent state. Thus, no particular stigma is attached to Karzai because of the route he took to power.
Over the past eight years, Karzai has emerged as an astute politician, a determined leader and a clever diplomat.
On balance, his rule has been good for Afghanistan.
He has managed to put the country on a different trajectory while persuading rival powers, including such deadly enemies as the United States and Iran, to help him build new state structures.
There is no doubt that Afghanistan under Karzai has suffered from unprecedented corruption. However, this is because the resources poured into the country are also unprecedented.
As far as we could make out, the level of corruption in Afghanistan is not above the average for “developing nations”, including neighboring Iran and Pakistan. And much of that corruption is the work of Western companies, consultants, and intermediaries who get the lion’s share, leaving the crumbs for Afghans.
For all that, Karzai could end up either as Shujaa or as Abdulrahman.
To repeat Shujaa’s fate, all he needs to do is to do nothing.
It is clear that the Americans, and their NATO allies, are not as committed to Afghanistan as in 2002.
To the Obama administration, Karzai is a “Bush leftover”, and must be replaced. In that analysis, Obama is inspired by President John F Kennedy who, having inherited the Vietnam dossier in 1963, started by staging a coup against South Vietnamese “strongman” N’Go Dinh Diem, America’s ally.
After months of efforts, the Americans have not found anyone to replace Karzai at this time, although they tried several challengers, notably former Kandahar Governor Gul-Agha Shirzai and presidential candidate Dr. Abdullah Zamariani.
What would Emir Abdulrahman have done in Karzai’s place?
He would have convened a session of the “Loya Jirgah”, the grand assembly of tribal, religious and ethnic leaders, to endorse his leadership and reassert national unity.
The Emir would have also formed a representative government with people with genuine constituencies, not like Karzai’s cabinet of technocrats most of whom have double nationality and lack a support base inside Afghanistan.
Abdulrahman would have also exposed the true extent of corruption and the sinister role that Western companies and individuals play in it.
More importantly, perhaps, the Emir would have asked the Loya Jirgah to fix a realistic date for the departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
The new Afghan army, under construction, is expected to become a credible force by 2013. Thus, full withdrawal by foreign forces could be completed by the end of 2014.
Karzai should offer a four-year plan with two principal goals: rebuilding the Afghan state and completing the departure of foreign troops in accordance with an agreement like the one that Iraq signed with the US last year.
To implement that strategy, Karzai would need a much broader political base. He does not need to woo the Taliban. If he manages to bring all the anti-Taliban forces into one big national tent, he would have enough support to isolate and defeat Mullah Omar and his drug-trafficking allies.
History has given Karzai a second chance, just as it did to Shujaa and Abdulrahman. What Karzai will do with it depends on him.