February 11, 2008

A Problem with the President? Or the Presidency?

Ann Marlowe, who most of us remember from her attack on Montgomery McFate and David Kilcullen in the Weekly Standard, is wrong if she really thinks the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan has not been getting worse of late -- as she argues in today's Washington Post. Marlowe should not confuse tactical successes and improvements with strategic successes and trends. If NATO falls apart, for example, our tactical successes will not matter one lick.

Her criticism of Hamid Karzai, however, might be more on target.

Karzai manages by panic, with massive corruption and an absence of vision. It's a tribute to the Afghan people's energy and U.S.-implemented economic regulations and reforms that Afghanistan's gross domestic product has more than doubled since the invasion. But Karzai has sought to derail grass-roots efforts at building democracy and to stifle Afghanistan's nascent civil society, repeatedly siding with fundamentalists against progressives.

This may not be a problem with Karzai as much as it's a problem with the institution of the Afghan presidency as defined by the country's constitution. In an earlier, smarter op-ed in the New York Times, two leading Afghanistan scholars argued as much:

Perhaps the biggest problem is that Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution is inappropriate and ineffective. The strong presidential system it embodies has not served the country well.

At the time, many historians and constitutional scholars warned that such a system wouldn’t work in a war-torn state with so many tribal and ethnic divisions. Presidential systems typically produce many disgruntled losers intent on challenging or undermining the victor. In addition, they can also put too much formal power in the hands of the winner, leading to personalized politics in which lesser politicians fight viciously over access to the president.

Yet, paradoxically, the actual powers of the president are often less than they appear on paper, while his responsibilities are heavy and the expectations that citizens have of him are unrealistic. It is all too easy to create a job that no one could do adequately.

This is precisely what has happened to President Karzai. A decent and incorruptible man, he has nonetheless grown increasingly isolated from the public. His position has been undermined by associates in the executive branch who lack his personal qualities, and by the allocation of ministries to various factions as political prizes.

Marlowe is correct if she considers Afghanistan's greatest difficulties are political. This is an argument made by this man, whose book we are now plugging for the third time.