One of the challenges of being a colonial power is that of keeping your local agents in line. Many of our difficulties in Afghanistan and Iraq arose from trying to simultaneously indulge the colonial ambitions of the neocons and Bush's conceit that he was a liberator. We once had a legitimate mission in Afghanistan: capturing Osama bin Laden and his principal lieutenants. Once Bush let him escape, that mission was over.

In Karzai, we seem to have a de facto agent that we can neither remove nor control. Kevin Drum catches Tom Friedman saying something sensible about Afghanistan.

If President Obama can find a way to balance the precise number of troops that will stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, without tipping America into a Vietnam there, then he indeed deserves a Nobel Prize — for physics...

Because when you are mounting a counterinsurgency campaign, the local government is the critical bridge between your troops and your goals. If that government is rotten, your whole enterprise is doomed.

Independent election monitors suggest that as many as one-third of votes cast in the Aug. 20 election are tainted and that President Hamid Karzai apparently engaged in massive fraud to come out on top. Yet, he is supposed to be the bridge between our troop surge and our goal of a stable Afghanistan. No way.


I am not sure Washington fully understands just how much the Taliban-led insurgency is increasingly an insurrection against the behavior of the Karzai government — not against the religion or civilization of its international partners. And too many Afghan people now blame us for installing and maintaining this government.

Karzai is already trying to undermine more international scrutiny of this fraudulent election and avoid any runoff. Monday his ally on the Electoral Complaints Commission, Mustafa Barakzai, resigned, alleging “foreign interference.” That is Karzai trying to turn his people against us to prevent us from cleaning up an election that he polluted.

Talking to Afghanistan experts in Kabul, Washington and Berlin, a picture is emerging: The Karzai government has a lot in common with a Mafia family. Where a “normal” government raises revenues from the people — in the form of taxes — and then disperses them to its local and regional institutions in the form of budgetary allocations or patronage, this Afghan government operates in the reverse. The money flows upward from the countryside in the form of payments for offices purchased or “gifts” from cronies.

Friedman seems to think that there is hope of reforming Karzai.

This is crazy. We have been way too polite, and too worried about looking like a colonial power, in dealing with Karzai. I would not add a single soldier there before this guy, if he does win the presidency, takes visible steps to clean up his government in ways that would be respected by the Afghan people.

If Karzai says no, then there is only one answer: “You’re on your own, pal. Have a nice life with the Taliban. We can’t and will not put more American blood and treasure behind a government that behaves like a Mafia family. If you don’t think we will leave — watch this.” (Cue the helicopters.)

I don't think reform is a realistic help, though.

Obama is hemmed in on every side by Bush's blunders. Right now, our only legitimate mission in Afghanistan is guarding the border against a return of al Quaeda - and this mission is both hopeless and pointless as long as Pakistan shelters bin Laden. Obama correctly understands that Pakistan is the core problem here, but neither he nor anyone else has figured out how to unravel that Gordian knot.


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