By Willis Sparks
The New York Times reported on Saturday that Feda Hussein Maliki, Iran's ambassador to Afghanistan, recently passed a large bag full of cash to Umar Daudzai, chief of staff to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. According to the Times, unnamed Afghan and Western officials say the payment was part of a "secret, steady stream of Iranian cash intended to… promote Iran's interests in [Afghanistan's] presidential palace" and "to buy the allegiance of Afghan elected officials, tribal leaders and insurgent commanders."
Iran has dismissed the report as "devilish gossip," and even some members of Karzai's staff initially denied the report. But Karzai himself now admits that it's true -- though he claims the payments are no secret. "The cash payments are done by various friendly countries to help the president's office and to help dispense assistance in various ways to the employees around here, to people outside, and this is transparent and this is something that I have discussed," Karzai said. The United States' sometimes pay in cash too, he added.
On the question of transparency, Karzai has a point. After all, the money was reportedly packaged in plastic bags.
Maybe the anonymous sources who leaked this story are working to drive a wedge between Karzai and his chief of staff, who some Western officials say is Tehran's man in Kabul. Maybe someone is trying to punish Daudzai for complaining about the use of private security companies in Afghanistan to protect aid organizations, a practice Karzai now blames for the deaths of significant numbers of Afghan civilians.
Maybe the story is designed simply to shine another light on Iran's backroom bid to build patronage networks inside Afghanistan -- and thus to make it a little more difficult for Tehran to extend its influence. Maybe the leak was designed to build a case for U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan longer than some within the Obama administration would like. Perhaps all these factors played a role.
But the larger story here is that U.S. troops will one day leave Afghanistan -- and that the neighbors, including Iran, want as large a say as possible in what happens next. Reaction to this story sounds a bit like the surprise and outrage expressed by members of Congress when someone inside the United States is caught spying for Russia. As if no one could have known that Moscow still spies on Washington, or that Washington still spies on Moscow. It would be a lot more shocking if Iran weren't trying to buy influence in Afghanistan.
Given the Taliban's history and its views of Shia Islam, it's fair to say that Washington and Tehran share a common enemy in Afghanistan. The Sunni-dominated Taliban has massacred Shia, targeted Iranian officials, and fueled the transport of opium from Afghanistan into Iran. Neither government wants a return to full Taliban control.
But as in Iraq, Iran also has a clear interest in seeing both the withdrawal of U.S. troops from a neighboring country and expansion of Iranian influence there.
President Obama has pledged to begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops next July, though the pace of drawdown will depend on security conditions in Afghanistan -- and political conditions at home. But however long U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, just as in Iraq, they can't stay forever.
The other moral of the story is that, despite hundred of billions in outside help, Afghanistan is still a country where cash is king.
Willis Sparks in an analyst in Eurasia Group's Global Macro practice.
I just spoke at an interesting lunch panel on fragile states, which was surprisingly substantive given that all of the panelists got roughly four minutes for their interventions.
My basic point -- political stability and electoral openness frequently work at cross-purposes in times of state crisis. The West tends to fetishize early democratization, even when it leads to Hamas in Gaza ... or uncontested fraud-ridden polls in Afghanistan. (Quick thought experiment: If we had free and open elections in China, how would the resultant government handle, say, Google?)
A more interesting and nuanced point: Even when elections are the right way to go, what kind of elections/institutions/legal system/government structure is worth a great deal more consideration and tailoring to on the ground conditions than generally appreciated? The Indian political structure's durability comes in part from being vastly more decentralized than the United States. I'd suspect that's exponentially more true in Afghanistan.
Former Haitian Prime Minister Michele Pierre Louis was impressive and almost shockingly thoughtful given everything her country has been through. She offered her thoughts on the distractions of elections and governance in "normal times" in Haiti and what that would mean in the context of reconstruction. As a complete outsider, it sounded like she'd like to get back into politics...
Ian Bremmer will be blogging from Davos this week sending reports and commentary from inside the World Economic Forum.
By Ian Bremmer
As President Obama works toward finalizing a new plan for Afghanistan, here are five reasons why the challenges U.S. forces face in building stability there are more formidable than those in Iraq:
1) Political legitimacy. Parliamentary elections in Iraq scheduled for January will spark violence, the results will create controversy, and the eventual leaders will take their places within a system that pits lawmakers and cabinet ministers against one another in a more-or-less direct struggle for power. But voters will turn out in large numbers, and Iraq's new political institutions are slowly developing a broad popular legitimacy. That's not true in Afghanistan, which might have been better off without elections earlier this year. Virtually no one believes President Hamid Karzai won the August vote; few will embrace him when he claims victory following the November 7 run-off. He may hold the office, but he has virtually no natural political base in the country. Karzai is not exactly a reliable partner in efforts to build lasting stability.
2) Training of local forces. U.S.
forces have had real success in helping the Iraqi government build its police
and security forces. The large-scale drawdown of U.S. troops beginning next year
will create a power vacuum that encourages battles over political turf and
control of oil revenues. We've seen an uptick in violence in recent weeks, and
we'll see more in months to come. Corruption remains a serious problem. But the
Iraqi government has shown considerable progress over the past year in
asserting control over territory and in beating back challenges from
insurgents. In Afghanistan, there's almost no local support for a national
professionalized military. Because Karzai's government has so little
legitimacy, and few local leaders believe he can offer protection against
Taliban attacks, very few people are lining up to don a uniform and pick up a
3) International coordination. In the battle against insurgents in Iraq, the United States has called most of the shots -- with significant (though now more modest) help from Great Britain. American and British forces have been well coordinated from the start, both operationally and strategically. Afghanistan's International Security Assistance Force has included troops from 43 countries with widely varying degrees of professionalism, morale and operational capability. Short of the U.S. military accepting responsibility for the entire mission, there's no short-term fix here.
4) Tribal/warlord patronage networks. More than any other factor, the willingness of Sunni tribal leaders to partner with U.S. forces against a common external enemy has been central to improvements in Iraq's security over the past two and a half years. In Afghanistan, tribal leaders and local warlords face US requests for help against a domestic foe, the Taliban, with whom they may find themselves negotiating long after NATO forces have left the country.
5) Resource base. Iraq has enormously underdeveloped oil reserves, a relatively well-educated urban elite, a population with some limited but real sense of national identity, and a favorable geographical position for development of trade and investment ties with other countries in the region and beyond. For the foreseeable future, the bulk of Afghanistan's cash will come from foreign aid and opium production. Neither offers much hope as a source of long-term stability.
Iraq's government has a long way to go before it can function as a set of independent, secure and self-confident institutions and as guarantor of Iraq's long-term stability. But in Afghanistan, it will be years before local leaders can move from coping with serious problems to solving them.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
by Ian Bremmer
In Afghanistan, even the good news isn't so good. The country managed to hold a presidential election in August, but there aren't many people inside or outside the country who considered it free and fair. It looks increasingly like Hamid Karzai will win without a second round, but his legitimacy will remain under a very large, very dark cloud. He'll face open revolt from Tajiks in the north, who overwhelmingly opposed his candidacy. And as evidenced by the significant recent expansion of terrorist bombings in Afghanistan's major cities and the assassination last week of the country's second-ranking intelligence officer, it will even become harder to secure Kabul. No one should have much confidence that a second round would do much to restore Karzai's credibility.
In addition, military operations against the Taliban inside Pakistan achieved some actual success this summer, but that has probably pushed some militants across the border into Afghanistan to harass coalition forces there. U.S. casualties have increased, though that's not surprising given the more aggressive operations of larger numbers of US troops. But last week's U.S. bombing on a Taliban target, which killed dozens of civilians, is just the latest in a series of setbacks for coalition military operations.
More worrisome: It's becoming increasingly clear that Afghanistan won't be able to stand on its own anytime soon. U.S. military officials report that the training of Afghan soldiers is well behind schedule. For the next two or three years, with coalition forces at their present levels, Afghan troops won't be nearly strong enough to maintain even the current level of security, let alone make any meaningful contribution to an aggressive counterinsurgency effort.
Afghanistan, more locals than ever
want the US
out, whatever the cost. There's also dwindling support for the war in the United
States, as the American media increasingly turns its
attention from an economy beginning to improve toward the growing death toll in
Within the Obama foreign-policy team, there looks to be a growing divergence of opinion on what to do next. There appears to be an internal consensus that the current strategy isn't working. But senior officials appear more divided on whether to "go long" or "go home." In the go long group, those who want more troops and more resources because "failure isn't an option," we see Secretary Clinton, envoy Richard Holbrooke, most of the generals on the ground, and most Republicans in Congress. In the go home camp, those who want to pull troops out before things get much worse, are Vice President Biden, most of Obama's political team, and a growing number of senior Democrats. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates appears to have grown much more skeptical.
In short, Afghanistan is becoming Obama's first lasting foreign-policy crisis. A major terrorist attack somewhere in the world carried out by militants trained in Afghanistan could shift international public opinion toward greater engagement. Short of that, U.S. public opposition to the war will likely grow steadily over the coming year, bringing the issue to a head just in time for U.S. midterm elections and driving a wedge between members of the president's own party.
MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images
By Eurasia Group analyst Maria Kuusisto
On August 20, Afghanistan held its second presidential elections since the 2001 ousting of the Taliban. Unfortunately, that's where the good news ends.
From the outset, the elections faced two major challenges. First, the election commission struggled to organize them, and completing the voter registration process proved particularly difficult. Second, the Taliban threatened to sabotage the elections through a campaign of violence and intimidation. In fact, the government was forced to postpone the elections from May to August, raising fears of a more indefinite postponement. But the elections went ahead as planned, which is extremely important because it keeps the post-2001 state-building process alive. A further postponement could have suggested a victory for the resurgent Taliban, suggesting that the group could control the country's political process and badly undermining confidence in the government.
While the fact that the elections were held is a positive development, the end result is likely to lack legitimacy. President Hamid Karzai probably gained more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections, which means that a second round is not needed, but there is a perception that he overcompensated for his declining popularity by engaging in wide-scale rigging and manipulation. He allegedly used government institutions, such as the election commission, and his supporters to inflate the voter turnout and the pro-Karzai vote in the southern and eastern provinces, which are his main constituencies. While observers are suggesting that the voter turnout was only around 10 percent in these provinces, the government suggests that it was a staggering 50 percent to 70 percent. The election commission is investigating some 800 complaints of rigging and manipulation. Although the runner-up, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, is unlikely to be able to challenge the result, he has emerged as an increasingly powerful opposition leader and credible alternative to Karzai.
Karzai's reelection as president is unlikely to improve the Afghan government's effectiveness. Since 2004, Karzai has appointed a set of controversial politicians and warlords to influential federal and provincial positions, and given them a free hand to run their respective ministries and areas. This situation has prevented the implementation of urgently needed reforms and development programs, while fuelling mismanagement and corruption. Karzai is unlikely to be able to break free of this cycle -- of bad appointments and bad governance -- because he owes his reelection to the support of another set of political thugs. Meanwhile, the United States' ability to maneuver the situation is limited. Washington is trying to improve effectiveness by installing a powerful chief executive in the government, possibly former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, and by appointing civilian advisers to key ministries and departments. But Karzai and his supporters are dragging their feet against institutional and policy reforms.
Finally, the elections themselves, without more robust governance, do not change the ground realities in most parts of the country. Large areas are slipping away from the control of Karzai's government. On the one hand, many places are effectively governed by local strongmen, who are often more interested in poppy cultivation than governance, and their private militias. On the other hand, the Taliban is spreading its influence. The group is using high-profile terrorist attacks -- such as the two pre-election attacks in Kabul -- to create fear among the population. Moreover, they are using bomb and suicide attacks against NATO forces and the Afghan National Army. These violent tactics have two main aims: 1) to disable the vital reconstruction and development process; and 2) to create political pressure in the United States and the West to withdraw troops and engage in peace talks with the Taliban. This situation could undermine popular confidence in the Western-sponsored state-building process, and dangerously play into the hands of the Taliban.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.