My former Council colleague Elizabeth Rubin had a fascinating profile of Hamid Karzai in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. As usual, Elizabeth’s reporting was fair and exhaustive, allowing her to present a complex picture of a leader who appears to be well intentioned but who has been overly tolerant of warlords and drug lords—and of his own relatives who are mired in seedy dealings.
Karzai’s administration has proved so troubled that it now appears likely he will not collect more than 50 percent of the vote and thus will be pushed into a second round of voting against the runner-up. A new poll shows Karzai with 36 percent support, compared with 25 percent for his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah. Having a competitive election will be good for Afghanistan, but the odds are that Karzai will still emerge on top. Whether he does or not, the chief priority going forward must be to strengthen Afghan governance, which cannot be reduced to a one-man operation. That means improving administration in the provinces, specifically. It would help greatly if governors were elected rather than appointed by the president; that would make them more accountable to the people.
I am mildly cheered by news that Ashraf Ghani, a respected technocrat who is also running against Karzai, may be offered a prime-minister-style position to run things on behalf of the aloof and somewhat disengaged president. A similar trial balloon had been floated a while ago about giving that position to Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Baghdad, and the United Nations, but Ghani would be a more obvious choice since he is not as closely linked to a foreign power.
There is much more to be done on the governance front, whoever occupies the presidential palace. We must not expect Afghanistan to achieve a First World standard of governance. Even parts of the First World—I’m thinking of Illinois and New Jersey, in particular—sometimes fall short. But we can expect Afghanistan to do better than it currently is. The country made progress in the past under Karzai—especially when Khalilzad was U.S. ambassador—and it is by no means impossible to imagine that it could make progress in the future, even with Karzai as president, as long as the overall structure of the administration is beefed up.