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Who 'Owns' Afghanistan?

U.S. President George W. Bush (left) with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House in mid-2004
U.S. President George W. Bush (left) with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House in mid-2004
KABUL -- Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. It's an adage that looks increasingly apt in Afghanistan as stability continues to elude the country.

Accusations and counteraccusations fly. President Hamid Karzai has been increasingly vocal in blaming the West for the worst ills afflicting his country -- an explosion of poppy production, a resurgence of the Taliban and Islamic extremism, and even pervasive corruption. His government lacks the requisite control, funds, and support, he says.

Albeit a little less vocally, some in the international community have laid much of the blame at Karzai's doorstep. The Afghan president is regarded by such critics as a weak leader, prone to opportunism, nepotism, and shady backroom deals.

Karzai has accused NATO of operating a "second government" in Afghanistan. Strictly speaking, he might be right. Most development projects do not originate within Afghan government ministries, and most financial assistance never passes through them. Western governments also control the international troops without whom the country would collapse "the next day," in the words of one of Karzai's own ministers.

Karzai's real problem, however, is the existence of a third power structure. Various insurgent formations exert real, daily power in about half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. It is in recognition of this fact that Karzai is now seeking deals with insurgents. And the international community supports him in this.

What the West appears to want is a government in Afghanistan with enough political authority and legitimacy to allow it to take full charge of the entire country. That is arguably not the case today; the international community is in the difficult position of having to act on behalf of a government that in crucial respects remains its own ward.

Faced with this chicken-and-egg problem, Western officials in Kabul often resort to talk of "Afghanization" of governance in the country. There appears to be no agreement, however, as to how advanced this process might be.

Outside Kabul

NATO's top civilian representative in Afghanistan, Fernando Gentilini, says the Karzai administration is fully in the driver's seat.

"I think the government has the capacity, and the government has the legitimacy -- the full legitimacy, this is a sovereign country -- to drive the process," Gentilini says.

But at the same time, Gentilini concedes "legitimization" problems persist in the relationship between the "national" and "subnational" levels -- code for Kabul's limited authority in many provinces.

Consequently, Gentilini says NATO would "applaud a political settlement" between the central government and any insurgents willing to join the political process. Like other ISAF officials, he carefully steers clear of imposing conditions on the terms of any such settlement.

Gentilini paints a picture in which the long-term trend in NATO's cooperation with the Afghan authorities is firmly positive -- and measurable.

A health volunteer vaccinates a 1-year-old boy against polio in Kabul in January 2009.
"There are targets, there are numbers, you know -- the 6 million children going to school, the hundreds of kilometers of roads which are paved, the improvement in health delivery. There are some [measurable] parameters," Gentilini says. "We have to remain balanced."

Statistics, though, are a fickle ally in Afghanistan.

Ramzan Bashardost, a member of Afghanistan's parliament, a fierce Karzai critic, and a one-time minister of Planning, says the estimated $21 billion of foreign aid "did not build anything." "Anything," he repeats for effect.

"It is not possible to show me that in seven years in Afghanistan we built a [single] school [that meets] international norms," Bashardost says. "The Kabul-Kandahar road: It is a famous road which Mr. Karzai said [was] a good job; two years after [its] reconstruction, now the road needs to be rebuilt."

The problem goes beyond norms and standards, however. In Pashtun-dominated provinces like Wardak, Western-built schools for girls admit only boys. Kabul residents complain that the Kabul-Kandahar highway is too dangerous to travel. In Helmand, virtually anything built with foreign funds is a target for insurgents.

Building Institutions

The Afghan government is essentially making the argument that the current predicament is largely a result of the international community's having "mis-Afghanized" Afghanistan.

Jelani Popal, a close Karzai ally in charge of the newly created Directorate of Local Governance, says NATO and its allies "imposed" on Afghanistan people "with bad reputations" -- drug dealers, criminals and warlords -- for the short-term objective of fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, he complains, "the Afghan government is expected to get rid of them overnight" to rid itself of corruption and incompetence. But "it is not a problem of the Afghan people," Popal contends.

Facing elections this fall, Karzai is suspected by many of trying to play to the dominant conservative elements within his own Pashtun community. But numerous conversations with Western officials in Afghanistan suggest that many in the international community, led by Washington, have lost considerable confidence in Karzai and would like to be rid of him.

Karzai's calls for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to tackle insurgents head-on increasingly look like a clever tactic to simultaneously weaken the position of both his international and his domestic opponents.

Afghan National Police trainees in Wardak in November 2008
But, arguably, the international community itself is at least partly at fault. Bashardost, who is making a long-shot bid to succeed oust Karzai in the presidential vote, says the United States and its NATO allies have tried to "build a new system with the old people." Bashardost explains the seemingly implacable hostility of today's Taliban leadership toward Karzai by pointing out that many of those currently in power are the same people the Taliban ousted in the 1990s.

Western governments seem to have decided that the best chance of long-term success lies in a strong Afghan National Army (ANA).

Tacitly undermining his own case that the Afghan government is in full possession of its sovereign powers, NATO representative Gentilini says the focus on the ANA is a logical "first step."

"[For] the Afghan national security forces overall being able to take full responsibility for the country, this to me is the real first step," Gentilini says. "Then we can discuss many other things, [including] how much we want to move on with the agenda defined in the Afghan [National Development Agenda]. But this, to me, is a kind of first milestone we should be able to achieve."

The challenge for NATO and its allies in Afghanistan is to ensure that the empowerment of the Afghan National Army -- dubbed "the only functioning institution in Afghanistan" by a top U.S. general in the country -- does not become a fig leaf for an international coalition in search of an exit strategy from an unpopular war.

Local journalists say that in the Pashtun-dominated provinces that compose roughly half of the total, the Afghan National Army and its auxiliary forces are often the only law apart from the insurgents. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in a society largely unacquainted with the concept of rule of law, the army might be unable to offer anything other than another highly repressive solution against the backdrop of a long history filled with injustice and violence. It may be unwilling to provide anything else either, given that it is ANA policy to use units that are not indigenous to the area of their deployment.

Alarmingly, Western officials increasingly are defining their long-term goals exclusively in terms of the central government's ability to exert control over territory rather the presence of a functioning democracy, the rule of law, or prosperity and stability.

They fail to notice that, for NATO, far more is at stake than its first-ever out-of-area mission. Afghanistan has for the past seven years also been a nation-building experiment unrivaled in scale outside Europe. As such, it constitutes a test for the West's entire "weltanschaaung" and its determination to expand its vision globally.

Should the experiment founder or become perverted despite the money and lives invested, the likelihood of its being restaged could recede irrevocably.

RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas gathered information for this report during a recent, NATO-hosted visit to Afghanistan with a small group of journalists