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The Karzai Question

Author: Daniel S. Markey, Adjunct Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
November 17, 2008
International Herald Tribune

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I watched Barack Obama's victory speech in Kabul, where his campaign promises have had particular resonance. The stage is now set for Washington to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and once Obama's new team reviews the complexities of the counterinsurgency mission there, I suspect the United States will match troop increases with greater civilian resources to support economic development projects and to help extend the writ of the Afghan state.

But an enormous gap still looms in U.S. policy: No one is sure what to do about President Hamid Karzai. Elections are scheduled for next fall, and the Afghan capital is buzzing with questions about whether Karzai can, or should, win another five-year term.

It would be nice to say that America should support the principle of free Afghan elections, and focus on process over personalities. Indeed, the defense of Afghanistan's nascent electoral institutions and culture is a worthy cause in and of itself. But Washington's unmatched influence in Kabul means that it cannot sit impassively-inaction will send as loud a message as action.

The Afghan state is on external life support. Its institutions require foreign donors and its security is guaranteed by international troops. Afghans understand these facts, so they are watching for any signal from Washington about whether Karzai will continue to enjoy American largesse, or if someone else will be anointed in his place. Karzai is also acutely aware of his dependence upon outside benefactors-he has always been uncomfortably sandwiched between the Afghan people and the international community.

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