You wonder what Afghan president Hamid Karzai was thinking over the past several days as he unleashed a fusillade of vitriol against his primary benefactor, the United States. His comments, such as “foreigners” were responsible for the presidential election fraud that declared him the outright winner, or that he was prepared to join the Taliban if he was continually pressured to reform, have caused even his fellow Afghans to reel in alarm. Has the president become unhinged?
No, not really. He is actually acting within the historical tradition rather than on the fringe. Karzai’s diatribe is part of the sad litany of foreigner bashing that has been a time-honored tactic of Muslim leaders over the last several centuries, since the Western world eclipsed the Islamic in all things important. When an embattled ruler needs to shore up his failing legitimacy, there is no subject that garners more domestic currency than pointing to the “infidel foreigners in our midst”.
The problem, in Karzai’s case, is that the foreigners are the source of his legitimacy- without their militaries, treasure, and UN imprimatur, Karzai would be another Najibullah, hanging from the rafters with his testicles in his mouth. Perhaps just before that moment he will lament, as he has in the past, in the most self-serving of ways: ”See. The international community has abandoned us…” Playing the blame game until the end.
This is the main difficulty with the local proxies we have cut deals with across the globe to prosecute our War on Terror in its various incarnations. They invariable act more like mercenaries than accountable civil servants. The Karzai government has systematically raped and pillaged its own people for the last decade- it is this that is the main source of the various local Afghan insurgencies that we group together and conveniently label the Taliban; they fight against bad governance first, infidels, second.
This predicament is not specific to Afghanistan but is a pattern that has become the norm in almost every flash point, Islamic or otherwise, across the globe. The Chechen/Ingushetia Front in the Russian Caucasus; the Moro Liberation in the Philippines; Al Qaeda in Iraq; the Pakistani Taliban; Hamas in Palestine/Israel; Hizbullah in Lebanon; Islamic Jihad and the Ga’ama’at in Egypt; the Algerian FIS; the Houthis in Yemen. All of these groups have done unspeakable things to innocents and should be condemned for it. However, what we often forget in our emotional rush to denounce them is how they began. In each case, their genesis can be traced to a sub-population, ethnic or sectarian, that felt disenfranchised, oppressed and poorly served by their governments. And in each case, this government was backed by a greater power, usually the United States, in an effort to fight extremism. The exception to this rule is Iran, whose leaders are not propped up by a foreign power but do habitually site foreign meddling to deflect attention from their own considerable abuse and mismanagement. Not surprisingly, the popularity of the United States and the West among Iranians, unlike the rest of the Muslim world, is still considerable.
So we must ask ourselves this question: are we really interested in a solution? Our proxy mercenaries- Karzai, Netanyahu, Zardari, Mubarak, Salih, Abdullah, Saddam (yes, once upon a time)- they can bring order and stability in the short term. But over time, the cycle will repeat itself. A region with no tradition of transparent, accountable governance will fall prey to the usual abuse by its own leaders. These men will turn inward when criticized, lashing out at the foreigner who forces his ways upon “our culture and sovereignty”, deflecting attention from despicable transgressions against their own people, financed by treasure and arms from abroad. And in the long run, both their legitimacy and ours will suffer. And because of this, more Americans, and Afghans, and Iraqis, and Pakistanis, Palestinians and Israelis, will die. But we will continue to back our guys. Because we need a local face, we cant be seen to rule others, even if they cannot rule themselves.