KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai’s leadership is weak, his government corrupt and nearly a third of the votes he won in the August election were thrown out as fakes.
But in the end, the Obama administration is sticking by the Afghan president – because it has few other good options.
Karzai is far from the strong and capable partner that Washington had hoped would emerge from the electoral process that it and Western allies had pushed for in Afghanistan. They hoped the elections would stabilize the country and bleed support from the Taliban.
But the process effectively ended in turmoil Sunday, even as the war with the Taliban intensifies. Karzai’s challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, bowed out only six days before a scheduled runoff, charging that no fair election was possible.
Now the United States, barring other developments, must find a way to work with Karzai, who was widely favored to win the runoff anyway, and encourage him to embrace supporters of Abdullah and other groups opposed to the Taliban.
Unless such groups are brought into the government, the Taliban are likely to grow in strength, capitalizing on widespread public discontent with the ineffectual government.
“The government is more of a headache for us than the Taliban,” said Ahmed Shah Lumar, a businessman in Kandahar in the south, who complains that development plans in his area gather dust waiting for government approval.
Karzai enjoyed close ties with President George W. Bush’s administration, which maneuvered him into power when the Taliban first collapsed in 2001.
But he fell out of favor when Barack Obama took the White House. U.S. officials have since been openly critical of Karzai as a weak leader, beholden to warlords whom he cultivated as allies.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration clearly concluded at some point that for all his faults, Karzai was the best it could get, given the ethnic and political realities of this impoverished country.
“We are going to deal with the government that is there,” said White House presidential adviser David Axelrod. “And obviously there are issues we need to discuss, such as reducing the high level of corruption. These are issues we’ll take up with President Karzai.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Saturday that Abdullah’s decision to quit the race would not undermine the legitimacy of a new Karzai administration.
Clinton said that when Karzai accepted the runoff, “that bestowed legitimacy from that moment forward.” She did not mention that Karzai agreed to the runoff only after strong American pressure, including marathon talks with Sen. John Kerry.
Now the U.S. administration must deal for the next five years with an Afghan leader whom Obama once described as suffering from a “bunker mentality” and out of touch with his own country.
“We are fed up with this government,” said Kabul shopkeeper Shah Mohammad Husseini. “The situation is getting worse and worse and worse. I want a government that has the power to implement laws and doesn’t deal with warlords.”
Nevertheless, the options among Afghanistan’s pool of potential leaders are limited.
Others such as Abdullah carry ethnic or historical baggage dating back to their roles in the civil war that devastated the country in the 1990s and led to the rise of the Taliban.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister, is widely seen as the candidate of the northern Tajik community, which accounts for about 15 percent of Afghanistan’s people.
He was an ally of a late, legendary warlord beloved by fellow Tajiks but despised by the Pashtuns who are Afghanistan’s majority – because of the warlord’s role in the civil war. Karzai named a different former Tajik warlord as his running mate to draw off Tajik votes.
As for Pashtuns, Karzai, the son of a Pashtun tribal chief, has long held their support. That ethnic group makes up more than 40 percent of Afghanistan.
Pashtuns also form the overwhelming majority of the Taliban, and the U.S. hopes to lure away moderate Taliban members. That difficult task would likely be impossible if Afghanistan were led by a Tajik.
“If by chance Abdullah Abdullah won a runoff, that’s the makings of a civil war in the country,” said Thomas H. Johnson, director of culture and conflict studies at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
Some U.S. and U.N. officials have floated the idea of a broad-based coalition or unity government, bringing together supporters of Karzai, Abdullah and other public figures to stand against the Taliban.
Western diplomats said the U.S. ambassador and U.N. mission chief held intensive talks with both sides on a power-sharing deal up until Abdullah pulled out.
For many in Afghanistan, the idea of a coalition government brings back bitter memories of the civil war, when a governing alliance of anti-Soviet commanders fell apart, triggering four years of fighting among their factions that destroyed much of Kabul.
“I don’t support a coalition government because then the president would be weak,” said Sadiq Khan Baryalai, a Pashtun merchant in Kandahar.
“There would be more and more conspiracies and more and more trouble in the government,” he said. “I want a strong government, a strong president, whoever it may be.”