US ambassador to Afghanistan's criticism adds urgency to curbing Karzai

Influential US ambassador Karl Eikenberry has reportedly argued that Afghanistan is too politically unstable under Karzai to send more troops. Western and Afghan officials are brainstorming ways to check the president's power.

Altaf Qadri/AP/File
US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, pictured in this Oct. 14 file photo.

America's ambassador to Afghanistan has objected to sending more troops here while the political situation remains unsettled, in a move that highlights how the fraud marred reelection of President Hamid Karzai has not quelled calls for major governmental reform, but only magnified them.

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has reportedly sent multiple cables back to Washington over the past week adding outlining his misgivings to a proposed surge of tens of thousands of US troops requested by the commander of NATO forces here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Mr. Eikenberry himself once commanded US forces in Afghanistan, adding clout to his concerns.

Western governments are trying to carve out ways to reach around Mr. Karzai by forging working relationships with other levels of the Afghan government. The constitution, however, gives Karzai sweeping powers, meaning he can expect to face international pressure now to appoint more effective deputies and heed postelection calls for constitutional reform.

"What you need to do is have good ministers who know their own portfolios, that decisionmaking is decentralized to a workable level and they kick things up to the president when they need to," says a Western diplomat.

While such criteria seem basic, Karzai cut pre-election political deals aimed at shoring up his electoral odds that may give loyalists precedence over technocrats. Some of the most important deals involved notorious warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum and Marshal Fahim who will now be looking for payback in government jobs for themselves and their supporters.

Qualifications vs. loyalty

Karzai says qualifications for the job are the key. "If there is someone that is not good, if there is someone that is corrupt, if there is someone that's just not up to the standard that we want, for whatever reason, everybody will agree that that person should be there in the government," Karzai said Monday in an interview with PBS's NewsHour.

Karzai has broad authority over appointments – not just in his cabinet but deep into the provinces – leaving the international community with only one very important point of leverage: troop levels. The US debate over whether to surge, maintain, or draw down troops penetrated the ruling elite in Kabul during the height of the election drama, when Sen. John Kerry finally prevailed upon Karzai to accept an election runoff.

"The lesson we drew from the whole Kerry visit and the [election is that] these [Karzai] advisers, including the newer reformist ministers and jihadis, mujahideen – understand what a US withdrawal would mean," says the Western diplomat.

Prominent analysts, including William Maley of Australian National University, dispute the notion that Karzai's circle was in any way brought to heel and made more amenable for second-term reforms.

How to curb Karzai's powers

That said, the elections have created momentum among diverse players for some governmental reforms. Of particular interest is finding ways to bolster the power of the Parliament and to devolve more power to the provinces.

For Karzai's main election opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, the answer now is to push for a constitutional loya jirga. This body would have the power to amend or even rewrite the constitution.

At this point, Dr. Abdullah and his disaffected constitutents, who represent roughly one third of voters, are arguing for major changes. These include switching the government from a presidential to a parliamentary one, removing central government powers to appoint provincial and local officials, overhauling the election commission, and changing the single-non-transferable vote system to one where political parties have more clout.

"It will take time, but I think this is the solution," says Abdullah, admitting that the chances of getting these reforms soon are slim.

Some of these reforms are palatable to US officials, particularly local control and elections reforms, but they also express concern about cracking the constitution wide open in a process that could be too time-consuming and contentious. Rather than a loya jirga, they speak of carefully chosen amendments.

Some of these goals can be accomplished through the Parliament. One bill under consideration now would give the elected provincial councils control over how to spend at least 25 percent of the central government's outlays in the province.

Pushback on outside-imposed reform

Karzai, of course, has little to gain by constitutional and legal changes that curb his power, so can be expected to only relent under pressure. Not all of his opponents are necessarily on board with such changes, either.

"Why is it that we are not attempting to make the Constitution work? Have we tried to make the system work?" says Ashraf Ghani, a former presidential candidate. "Every American comes, Tom, Dick, and Harry, and starts pontificating and changing the system. And that is harmful because we are not permitted to reach an internal consensus. We have so many foreign cooks now."

Instead of changing the constitution, Mr. Ghani would like to see Afghan leaders from all backgrounds brought together to hash out a five-year agenda, and more experienced people placed in power to implement it.

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