The Re-election of Hamid Karzai

Executive Summary

A new political reality is evolving in Afghanistan, energized by the 2009 electoral process. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is the center of gravity. Though Karzai began 2009 embattled, he entered 2010 with a new five-year mandate. Karzai and his allies are emboldened, and personality-based power-politics in the country has seen major growth. Stabilizing Afghanistan requires transforming personality poli­tics into enduring and accountable institutions. To assist with that, the international community must recognize the new nature of Afghanistan’s politics, and recalibrate how it uses its political capital.

President Karzai has evolved into a savvy and sophisticated politician, and has emerged as a stronger player in Afghan politics through the 2009 election. 

  • Through extensive but controversial deals and shrewd political maneuvers, Karzai had set himself up for re-election regardless of what happened on election day. Karzai’s demobilization of powerful likely challengers was integral in ensuring his re-election.
  • Traditional and emerging political players invested in Karzai’s re-election, bringing these hitherto distinct political groupings together, and yielding him the electoral strength to overpower his opponents.
    • Karzai formed alliances with a select group of regional and local leaders who enjoy influence in Afghanistan that translated into hundreds of thousands of votes, including Ismail Khan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Haji Mohammad Muhaqiq and Gul Agha Sherzai.
    • Karzai also selected his running mates with a calculation aimed at strengthening his position in advance of the vote. Most important was the selection of his former Vice President and Defense Minister Marshal Fahim, which brought a potential Abdullah supporter and powerful financial partner to his side.
    • Some of the competence of Karzai’s camp arose from a new and much less discussed nucleus in Afghan politics—a significant and ambitious technocratic political class within the government. This group includes figures such as Minister of Education Ghulam Farooq Wardak, National Directorate of Security Chief Amrullah Saleh, and Minister of Interior Hanif Atmar, but also influential but often publically unknown figures such as his chief of staff, Omar Daudzai.
  • President Karzai has accordingly gained increasing capacity to achieve his own ends with domestic rather than international support. 
  • The United States has lost political capital as a result of the elections process.
    • The United States failed to counter the evolving perception that Washington sought Hamid Karzai’s defeat.
    • Ambassador Eikenberry’s visits to the offices of rival candidates during the campaign season did not help.  Neither did the premature discussion of a run-off by U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, and the U.S. media. 
    • Diplomatic and media pressure for a run-off sought the extension of a process that most Afghans wanted resolved. 
  • Afghanistan’s state institutions are nascent and weak, but politics and political actors are maturing and stronger than ever before.
    • Personalities rather than enduring and credible national institutions dictate the course of politics.
    • The international community needs to understand the interests, ambitions, and maneuvering capabilities of the key political players.
    • The reach of politicians to areas beyond Kabul is much greater than recognized. Often their influence beyond the capital exists through personal, commercial, family, and political networks, rather than through official institutions that are easily recognizable to the international community.
    • State institutions do not yet have the ability to deliver wherever and whenever they must.
    • Yet, it is not so much that the Afghan state has been losing ground to insurgents since 2001, as commonly understood.   More accurately, the insurgents and political actors are fighting to fill political vacuums.  And both camps are making notable progress.
    • Though the international community has recognized the insurgency’s expansion, they have generally overlooked progress that Karzai and other politicians have made in extending their political networks outward from Kabul.
  • Applying expansive concepts such as “corruption,” “fraud,” or “warlords” to explaining current Afghan politics is unhelpful. Although factors such as corruption are in play, a framework of analysis fixated on it deters from understanding the nuances of the evolving political scene in Afghanistan.
    • The commercial interests of political actors are shaping strategic dynamics, given the growing marriage of business with politics and the rise of an ambitious, wealthy, and influential political class.
    • Vice President Fahim’s new alliance with Karzai is one major example of this dynamic, as the brothers of the political principals have shared business interests.
  • Afghanistan’s personality-based political order lacks the stability and endurance that can encourage public confidence. Such a political scene lends itself to an often overstated appearance of fragility.
  • Institutions must develop in order to organize the politics beyond the personalities, and afford it an enduring structure.
    • Simply reinforcing ministries and projects is not sufficient to creating enduring, functioning and accountable institutions.
    • Development of national political parties is a necessary step for transcending personality politics.
    • Afghanistan must develop a state bureaucracy that is sufficiently divorced from political power-players to have its own separate interests, motivations, and professional cadre.
    • The international community must help develop capable institutions that do more than reinforce individuals’ political and commercial networks, and also increase the delivery potential and accountability of government.


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