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The Karzai Alternative

Might former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh challenge Hamid Karzai?
Might former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh challenge Hamid Karzai?
What's up with Amrullah Saleh? Until last June, he was the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security. That was when President Hamid Karzai dressed him down following a Taliban attack on a peace conference that was being held in the middle of Kabul. Karzai accused Saleh and Interior Minister Hanif Atmar of lying down on the job, prompting both men to submit their resignations -- which were duly accepted.

That was that, one might have thought. Saleh -- until recently virtually unknown outside of the narrow circle of people interested in the inner workings of Afghanistan's national security apparatus-- has suddenly become a rather visible figure here in the United States. In December, he turned up in Washington, where he gave the keynote address at a high-profile terrorism conference sponsored by the conservative Jamestown Foundation. He made the rounds of the Washington think tanks and hobnobbed with big shots.

Now, one of the United States' most respected news programs has broadcast an interview with him. The piece led off with Saleh leading the interviewer up a steep hill to the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Masud. Saleh, like Masud, is a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, and, starting in 1990, he spent several years as an aide to Masud before entering the post-Taliban government.

The interview, which you can find here, contains a lot of interesting nuggets about Karzai, the conduct of the war, and policy toward the Taliban. But I was most struck by this little exchange:

Q. Do you have intentions to run for president?

A. It will be wrong to say yes or no. Politics does not start like that. But everybody wants to become a president. I want to contribute. I want to be on the stage, but humble, but not necessarily expand myself and my energy for that one position. This country is in dire need of talent, of people who can do something. Presidential position is not the only meaningful -- there are too many others. I'm already doing a lot of good work here.

It's intriguing that it would occur to the interviewer, a solid reporter by the name of Martin Smith, to even ask this question. After all, Karzai won his current five-year term in the last presidential election at the end of 2009. Surely it's rather early in the game to be thinking about possible competitors?

The answer, of course, is that it's not -- especially here in Washington, where years of squalid revelations about the Karzai administration's alleged corruption, ineptitude, and nepotism have exasperated policymakers. (No question, it's those same policymakers who bear the brunt of responsibility for much of the mess in Afghanistan, but that's another story). Karzai's gushing overtures to the Taliban, his courting of the Iranians, and his open disparagement of the United States have sent his popularity in Washington to an all-time low. Smith does not need anyone to tell him this.

So, is there a real alternative to Karzai, right now? If one is just talking about replacing him with someone else, the answer is probably "no." The Obama administration is -- to put it mildly -- extremely unlikely to try nullifying the election results (even if the vote count was hotly disputed, just like the more recent parliamentary poll that continues to shake up Afghan politics). But that doesn't mean there aren't options.

One is simply to push the Afghan government to broaden its base. Caroline Wadhams, an Afghanistan watcher at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, argues that one big problem in Afghanistan right now is precisely that the current arrangement concentrates too much power in the office of the Afghan president. Provinces have little formal autonomy and the government lacks accountability -- which has the effect, in a notoriously fractious country, of making regional leaders even less inclined to work with Kabul.

So, Wadhams says, there's currently a lot of talk in Washington about how to broaden the government and bring hitherto-neglected groups into the business of running the country.

That sounds reasonable enough -- surely better than putting all your eggs in the basket of a president who -- if you believe those U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks -- sometimes forgets to take his meds. But, I can't help suspecting that there are people in Washington who favor a more hard-headed approach. They're the ones who are intent on grooming potential rivals to Karzai -- rivals who could make a credible argument that they aren't corrupt, aren't eager to embrace the Taliban, and aren't reluctant to allow the Americans an active role in Afghanistan's affairs even after the 2014 withdrawal deadline.

What was intriguing about Saleh's speech at the Washington conference was the way it carefully hit each of these notes. Saleh mentioned in passing that his family still lives in Kabul (in stark contrast with certain presidential relatives who own mansions in Dubai) and that his daughter is going to school there (Americans are very concerned about Afghan girls having the right to attend school).

He stated his opposition to any power-sharing deal with the Taliban and his intense skepticism about the Pakistani role in Afghanistan (music to myriad ears inside the Beltway). And he went out of his way to praise the U.S. forces for their sacrifices on Afghanistan's behalf (balm for the souls of policymakers desperate to appease American voters increasingly souring on the war). No wonder that the man who introduced Saleh made a point of mentioning that his fans include ex-CIA Director General Michael Hayden.

Does this mean that Saleh is really the man to replace Karzai? Not at all. For one thing, his ethnic background is likely to handicap his chances; it's hard to imagine that one could suppress a largely Pashtun insurgency by naming a Tajik as president. If the Americans are casting around for a serious competitor to Karzai, they're more likely to settle on someone who can also claim to be a moderate Pashtun -- someone like Hanif Atmar (who lost his job in Karzai's government at the same time as Saleh) or even Gul Agha Shirzai (the governor of Nangarhar Province).

Still, there are plenty of reasons to build up a guy like Saleh. He's young, tough and steely-smart (ergo, a man of the future). If he could manage to garner genuine support from members of Afghanistan's Taliban-skeptical minorities (like the Tajiks, Uzbeks, or Hazaras), he could be used to remind Karzai that the Pashtuns aren't the only game in town. He could be used, perhaps, to constrain the man in Kabul with the threat of a crippling separatist opposition if compromise with the Taliban goes too far. And there might even be some way he could be injected into the Afghan government as a way of checking Karzai's overweening power.

That might sound far-feteched, I admit. But you never know; weirder things have happened. In any case, no one should blame Karzai for looking over his shoulder.

-- Christian Caryl