Why America Can't Afford a Karzai Win

Interview: Afghanistan scholar Thomas Barfield on warlord reunions, Abdullah's GQ style, and why Team Obama is rooting for a runoff.

For decades, Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield has been one of America's top experts on the culture and politics of Afghanistan and the region. My last conversation with Barfield, who also serves as president of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies, dealt with political tensions in Pakistan and the prospect of that young country's dissolution. We spoke again last Friday about the previous day's Afghan election, Karzai's dapper rival Abdullah Abdullah, and why the Obama administration is quietly desperate for a runoff.

Mother Jones: Based on what you know, would you say that the election is legitimate?

Thomas Barfield: Yeah, because I think there's going to be a runoff. So the question of legitimacy will be much more important in the runoff.

MJ: Right, between Abdullah and Karzai. Who would you vote for if you were Afghan?

TB: Abdullah, because Karzai has disappointed everyone. Putting together a Warlord's Reunion Tour is hardly a vote of confidence in the future.

MJ: What can you tell us about Abdullah? I know he was an adviser to the late Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shad Massoud.

TB: Yeah. He's an ophthalmologist, a trained physician who was also Massoud's spokesman. But he also happens to be a Pashtun, which is an interesting combination.

MJ: He's half Tajik, isn't he?

TB: Pashtuns determine their descent by the male line. There's plenty of Pashtuns who have Tajik mothers. It's because he's connected with the Northern Alliance that they're stressing that. But in most cases, since Afghans don't discuss their mothers, you would not necessarily know.

MJ: What's he like?

TB: He's a very urbane guy. He's one of the spiffiest dressers in all of Afghanistan. He really is! It's amazing. I first met him in 2002. I was covered with dust and stuff and I went down to the foreign ministry, and he walks out impeccably dressed. And I wondered, How does he manage? Everybody else is just covered with dirt and dust. Karzai likes the robes and stuff; Abdullah is much more of a GQ kind of guy in terms of his dressing.

MJ: He's someone the US could live with, then?

TB: Yeah. The thing is, the US needs a clean start. If Abdullah comes in, he would presumably handle the foreign side because he was the foreign minister. But it strikes me that he would probably go to someone like Ashraf Ghani—who is very keen on state building, who introduced the stable currency to Afghanistan—and cut a deal with him. He needs to say, "You're the guy who's interested in running the state and building up the government. What if I'm head of state and you're my partner in terms of making this thing work?"

MJ: Tell me more about Ghani.

TB: Ashraf Ghani probably came in third or fourth. He was the former finance minister. All of these guys running against Karzai were in his Cabinet. There's hardly any outsiders. Ghani was a professor at Johns Hopkins, an anthropologist actually, and then he went to work for the World Bank for at least a decade, running their Russian desk, so he's incredibly skilled at bureaucratic planning and other things. He also wrote a book on fixing failed states. So of all the people, he has the best ideas on how to make a government work.

MJ: What platform is Abdullah running on?

TB: One of the things was that he wants to decentralize the government. He argued that they should move more to a parliamentary system as opposed to this really highly centralized executive presidential system that the constitution sets up now, which puts all the power into Karzai's hands. If you've got a really strong ruler who's really competent, that can be a great system. But when you have someone who's unable to make up his mind and is cutting deals with everybody, then a vacuum at the center means a paralysis of government. And that's what you've got with Karzai.

MJ: Decentralization is something Obama has hinted at.

TB: The US has realized that this [centralized] system doesn't work particularly well for Afghanistan and so in that sense they would be in sync more with Abdullah. They would be more keen to build from the bottom up. Karzai and the constitution has pushed from Kabul down, which hasn't been all that successful. So Abdullah could probably cut a deal. My guess would be that he would find it much easier to work with the Americans than Karzai did. Also, the most competent members of Karzai's Cabinet quit or were fired. And I think the US would rather work with these people—who were fairly competent in their jobs and got kicked out—than having to deal with Karzai bringing back essentially all the warlords. You would think it was 2002, bringing these guys back and promising every faction of the country a ministry or a piece of the government. Karzai is willing to weaken the structure of government if he can maintain power; he would be willing to do anything for that. That means that if he wins, he will have an even more crippled government than he already has.

MJ: Have you sensed a push within the US government for regime change?

TB: Yes and no. The strange thing is that America feels it should be neutral in the Afghan elections. That it would be interfering with Afghan politics and domestic politics. Afghans are saying, "You've got an entire army in the country." As far as they are concerned, you're up to your eyeballs in Afghan politics. This is one of those strange cultural things.

MJ: The Taliban are going to assail the US no matter what.

TB: They are. But the Afghans firmly believe that the Americans pick the president. And therefore they'll blame us for anything Karzai does, because we picked him. On the other hand, we say it's up to the Afghans to get rid of Karzai if he's not doing a good job. Karzai is trying to sneak in between this gap in understanding. Afghans are not going to oppose Karzai if they think it's a fix, but if there is a runoff, and it looks like there will be, then a lot of Afghans who supported Karzai will reassess if they supported him because they believed, "Well, the Americans wanted him and why should we go against the status quo? But if the Americans really fixed this, then Karzai should win in the first round. If he didn't win in the first round, then maybe the Americans don't want him. And if the Americans don't want him, then maybe we should…"

MJ: …vote for who we want.

TB: Yeah. Or at least Abdullah is in more need of a coalition to rule, and so he's liable to go to some different groups in the country and say, "If you're part of my coalition, I will actually need you to govern." As opposed to Karzai, whose track record is to promise you nearly anything during the election, and then once it's over you get nothing.

MJ: So Abdullah might actually get some buy-in from moderate militant factions?

TB: Well, some of them. The Taliban and the militants got themselves caught up in a real problem by saying, "You shouldn't vote; don't participate in the elections." They hurt Karzai. If I was running an insurgency, I would be running the get-out-the-vote campaign in Kandahar and Helmand, saying, "I want you guys at the polls. Everyone who doesn't have his finger in ink we're going to find." Because in fact, Karzai is one of the best gifts the insurgency could ask for. If you get a major change in government, it's a real crapshoot as to whether they can exploit that or whether it will make things more difficult—people could say, "Well, we're not dealing with the corrupt governors that Karzai appointed, his drug-dealing friends." If I was the Taliban, I think I would rather launch an insurgency against Karzai than probably anybody else.

MJ: And Abdullah has a reputation for being an upstanding guy?

TB: When they were giving out free pieces of property—Karzai gave out free pieces of property to members of his Cabinet to build houses and make a fortune on—Abdullah refused. I've been to his house; it's a modest house inherited from his father. You go to [warlord Abdul Rashid] Dostum's house, and he must have hired a Las Vegas designer; that's what the houses look like. Abdullah has a reputation for probity.

MJ: The author Khaled Hosseini told me these guys are like Tony Soprano, cruising around Kabul in their…

TB: Yeah, their black SUVs with no license plates and tinted windows. But Abdullah has a sterling reputation for fighting against the Taliban. The Pashtuns and Pakistanis in particular hate him for being associated with Massoud, but other people say, "Look, you have really deep roots in terms of your commitment to the country. This isn't like parachuting in with the Americans after 2001. You've been at this for a really long time."

MJ: So how much of the low election turnout would you attribute to the Taliban threats?

TB: In the south, some of it's due to the threats. Elsewhere, I think it's the belief that people feel that the Americans were going to choose it. They were really enthusiastic five years ago when they did this; those people were really, really interested, they were really up for it. Now they don't really feel they can change stuff. In Afghanistan, power has never changed hands via the electoral process, so the idea that you could go to vote and Karzai could be gone is really mind-boggling. If it actually happens, the Afghans will be aghast, like, "Really? Nobody got shot, it wasn't a coup or anything?" Because no Afghan ruler has left office peacefully or died in office peacefully since 1901. That's a long time.

MJ: Which leads you to wonder whether there's real fraud going on.

TB: Well, there will be real fraud. The thing is, Karzai might be so unpopular that fraud may not be enough. The US will be caught in a real dilemma if Karzai claims 51 percent. Then the shit will hit the fan. If there's no runoff and it's really, really close, then fraud plays a really big role. On the other hand, if it goes to a second round, it really doesn't matter whether there was fraud in the first round or not.

MJ: So you would be very surprised if he pulls the 51?

TB: If he does, then the American government will be in a very difficult position because they will have to assert that this is a legitimate vote. To claim 51 percent would be tough, whereas if you have a runoff, and Karzai wins that, he would have a slightly stronger claim to power. From the US point of view, you wouldn't want either Abdullah or Karzai to come into office on this vote with 51 percent. It would be better to have a runoff so people can focus on a one-on-one, not forty candidates running against Karzai. That was one of Karzai's strategies, to make the bar so low that he would be the only one easily recognized out of a huge number of nonentities. But if it goes to one-on-one, Abdullah can say, "Look, it's me or Karzai, and if I'm coming in, this is what I can offer you." In Afghanistan, the perception of being a winner or loser often turns into a reality; if people think Karzai's going to lose, then who wants to be the last one in his tent?

MJ: Afghans are voting for Karzai only because they think he'll win?

TB: Because they think the Americans want him to win. From the American point of view, it's, "No, we don't necessarily want to see him win." There's a cultural disconnect. At the beginning of the Obama administration, it seemed to be quite clear that they were looking for alternatives to Karzai. But when it came right up to it, they pulled back and didn't suggest, "Well, this is our candidate" or put together an opposition, and didn't really come down heavy saying, "Well, why is Karzai bringing back Dostum from Turkey, cutting all these deals with guys we thought were Afghan history?" You know, they were quiet. And so the Afghans take that quiet as, "They must approve because they're powerful." Remember that when the Russians and the British wanted to get rid of the people they put in power, they just did it. And that's the way the Afghans look at it.

MJ: But they recognize that we're different than the Russians.

TB: Well, they do, but this is weird. It's hard for me to explain. If we don't like Karzai, we don't have to come out and publicly endorse somebody, but we can make it mighty clear that we welcome alternatives. We could have stressed weeks ago that we look forward to a second round; the Afghans would know what that means. We didn't. In fact, we said nothing—the US government assumed it would not go to a second round.

MJ: Can you even have an election in a place like Afghanistan that's not going to be tarnished by fraud accusations or outright fraud?

TB: No, but you can't in Chicago either. Doesn't mean you can't have a democracy. It's a question of, is the fraud large enough to challenge people's sense of the outcome? If Karzai gets 45 percent and 10 percent of the votes were fraudulent, it doesn't matter. It actually makes the corruption problem less acute if you have a runoff. And in a place like Afghanistan, it's much more difficult to steal on a wholesale scale. We've talked about corruption—8,000 identity cards here, a guy saying, "I can deliver 700 of my people." That's different from being able to deliver 2 or 3 million votes. Can you move 5 percent, 7 percent of the votes? Maybe. Can you move 20 percent? Probably not.

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.