Earlier today, about a mile from where I write, Hamid Karzai gave his inauguration speech at the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul’s heavily fortified “Green Zone.” Present were representatives from some 40 countries, including the many Western nations so heavily invested — financially and militarily — in Afghanistan’s future.
Among the honor roll at the November 19 speech were United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Minister David Miliband and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner. It is with mixed sentiments, and more than a touch of irony, that these champions of democracy extended their hand to Karzai, given that the election granting him a second presidential term has been almost unanimously condemned as fraudulent.
Before the election campaigns even began, it was clear Karzai had fallen out of grace with the West — a result of his previous administration’s abominable record fighting corruption and curbing the drug trade. According to Transparency International, in the last year Afghanistan slipped from the fifth most corrupt nation in the world to the second. Unless they plan to challenge Somalia for bottom spot, which is not inconceivable, there is really nowhere further to fall. Yet now, as the foreign powers that prop up the Afghan regime search for a champion in the fight against corruption, it is to Karzai that they must return.
With these expectations mounting, Karzai has made fighting corruption a cornerstone of his inauguration speech. Afterward, the international community’s verdict seemed to be that he had at least made the right noises, but they now needed action.
In fairness, there have been positive signs of late: the Afghan Attorney General’s Office has announced that five current and three former ministers are under investigation for corruption related offenses. But even with other cases in the pipeline, these must be considered the thin edge of a very thick wedge.
While the West points an accusing finger and insists more must be done, it is unfair to place all the blame on Kabul. Measures to insure the international community’s money — which ostensibly bankrolls the Afghan government — was well spent have been vastly inadequate. The notion of conditionality has barely been touched on; only now are countries involved in the reconstruction and security effort beginning to insist that continued support be contingent on tangible results in reducing corruption.
One key US suggestion to Karzai was to set up an anti-corruption commission. So far though, this has only highlighted the divisions in approach and priority so often hallmarking the international community’s reform efforts. Behind the scenes, the new commission has caused disquiet among multi-governmental bodies, which believe it only duplicates many of the present efforts and will slow down the progress of existing anti-corruption mechanisms.
Even the presidential election was a poor showing for the international community. The United Nations found itself in a scandal, with high-level resignations and dismissals following internal disagreements as to whether to present the full body of evidence they had gathered regarding election fraud. To Afghans it seemed the UN was scarcely adhering to the same levels of transparency that they advocate.
The truth is, with or without fraud, Karzai was always going to have secured the largest portion of votes, even if he couldn’t reach the 50 percent threshold needed for victory in the first round. Had it not been for the withdrawal of his sole remaining opponent in the runoff election, Karzai would inevitably have won this round outright. Although he never technically fulfilled the constitutional criteria to win the election, the international community nonetheless swiftly recognized his victory. Having been the beneficiary of such a flawed process, his credentials to fight corruption are severely tainted, perhaps even more so in the eyes of some Afghans than those of the outside world. Coupled with his previous track record, Karzai is hardly in an ideal position to fight graft.
Even if the will to fight corruption exists, achieving practical results will be an uphill struggle. Karzai’s ability to do what the West previously referred to as “consensus building” was one of the key factors that contributed to his winning the election. The flip side to this is that there are plenty of powerful and corrupt figures who feel their support obliges a return.
One need look no further than the two men who stood on either side of Karzai as he took his oath of allegiance. Both Vice Presidents, Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Abdul Karim Khalili, have warlord backgrounds and highly questionable human rights records. Their value to Karzai is the support they bring from the Tajik and Hazara populations, respectively. But this backing will come at a price, and so the vicious circle of concessions and double standards that is the backbone of corruption begins at the highest levels.
Foreign politicians listened to Karzai’s pledges of action in this city garrisoned by their soldiers, yet with empty streets and closed airspace. Were they to set substantially lower levels of corruption as a precondition for their mission’s success in the near future, which would allow them to withdraw, they are likely setting themselves up for failure.
A.P. is a freelance journalist, photographer and analyst currently working as the information manager of a multi-governmental security reform agency in Afghanistan