LOS ANGELES — Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s recent sharp and unexpected criticism of Kabul’s Western allies has triggered an explosion of commentaries and analysis in the international press. Editorials from Kabul to London to Washington have tried to make sense of the Afghan leader’s new tone of defiance toward the United States.
Subsequently, Karzai has been accused of drug abuse, ungrateful arrogance or even worse, of suffering from a serious mental illness. Missing amid these accusations and counter-accusations is a sober scrutiny of structural flaws that have caused the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, ultimately leading to the present difficulties in diplomatic relations between Kabul and Washington.
A major flaw in the cacophony of criticism is the focus on Karzai to begin with. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has concentrated on Karzai's inability to curb corruption and his lack of initiative to make his administration more efficient, implying the Afghan leader is the key factor impeding progress in Afghanistan. The complex reality on the ground, however, contradicts this assumption.
The problem is not that Karzai is an autocrat with dictatorial tendencies who refuses to reform his state for the sake of perpetuating his own power. Rather, it is the lack of a powerful, overarching central state in Afghanistan that has impeded stability over the last three decades.
The process of destabilization began in the 1980s, as a natural consequence of the Soviet occupation. The armed struggle against the occupation lacked a central command. This diffusion of power proved advantageous in defeating the Soviet-backed central state because Kabul was faced with attacks from multiple fronts led by a range of individualistic jihadi leaders, each with their distinct fighting strategy, financial resources and fighters loyal only to their leader and not the country as a whole. This diffused structure was the reason why violence carried on even after the 1992 jihadi victory, triggering the civil wars of the early 1990s and ultimately leading to the Taliban’s rise to power.
Understanding this background is integral to grasping today’s crisis of stability in Afghanistan. This is also because for reasons of urgency and expediency, the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan failed to fully dismantle the infrastructure for rebellion laid out in the 1980s. The diffusion of power has persisted since then, preventing the establishment of a hegemonic, central state.
Given this structural reality, it makes sense that NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan have failed to curb the insurgency. The current rebellion lives off an efficient infrastructure of rebellion that was laid out in the 1980s with the purpose of confronting a central state from various fronts and causing its collapse.
This infrastructure is still alive and well, complete with historical networks of loyalty, mapped-out routes of attack, and access to arms and financial resources that are often concentrated beyond the country’s borders. The recent eruption of violence in Baghlan and Kunduz are only two illustrative examples of the fact that this infrastructure still allows for an easy switch from a civilian life to that of a rebel — a pillar of instability.
It is reasonable, then, to assume, that as long as the infrastructure for rebellion remains intact, stability in Afghanistan will remain a distant dream.
Concentrating criticism on Karzai is not only fruitless but it also misses the point. The truth is that Afghan politics came of age in the ruthlessly competitive atmosphere of the 1980s jihad, when in the absence of a central command and coherent structure, personality power cults were allowed to thrive.
Petty rivalries emerged then that still overshadow the more solid political goals of loyalty to a single leader and support for the country’s interests as a whole. Karzai, his supporters and detractors, are all a product of the murky world of 1980s. Since then rebellion for rebellion’s sake has become second nature to many Afghan political players as well as fighters. The only leaders who command true loyalty among their fighters are those who lead rebellions, and not those in power.
It is the failure of the international community to grasp this fact, as well as the persistence of a diffused but efficient structure, that impedes progress in Afghanistan. The problem in Afghanistan is thus a structural one and one of mentality. To focus on Karzai alone is not only pointless, but as is becoming increasingly clear, it is also counter-productive.
Nushin Arbabzadah is a former BBC journalist and currently a visiting scholar at UCLA.