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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.

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

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.

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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.

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