Nov 25, 2009

No honeymoon for Hamid Karzai

To regain legitimacy, Afghanistan's president must commit to critical reforms and prove he deserves international support

Hamid Karzai assumes his second term as president without a honeymoon. He faces a crisis of both domestic and international confidence, and has the option to become either a statesman or an outcast.

Persisting with the practices of the last five years will make him an outcast. General McChrystal, in his new strategy, has identified the insurgency and the crisis of public confidence in Afghan public institutions as the two threats to the mission of the International Security Assistance Forces (Isaf). "Unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity" are singled out as the sources of the crisis.

Despite the severity of the challenge, Karzai has a real opportunity to change course and get the country back on the track to progress, as it was in years following the 2002 Bonn agreement. National consensus on the need for reform and international support, if not demand, for Afghan-led change provides the platform for his course for becoming a statesman.

To regain legitimacy, Karzai's most immediate goal must be the creation of a government that can deliver core functions to the people. During the flawed presidential campaigns a national consensus emerged on the need for peace and security; good governance; justice and rule of law; development, education, and jobs; peace and reconciliation; and regional and international partnerships. Were he to make a firm commitment to address these critical tasks under the umbrella of restoring Afghanistan's full sovereignty, he will be able to regain the support of both the Afghan people and the international community.

The path to statesmanship requires benchmarks on military, economic and political progress. Afghan ownership can be demonstrated by setting specific targets for goals of good governance, rule of law, development and economic growth in genuine partnership with the international community. The alternative is to face international demands for removal of corrupt politicians and alleged drug dealers. Contrary to widespread assumptions, it is not the absence of capability but the exclusion of capable people from the government that has hollowed the state from within.

The international forces are not in Afghanistan to create an empire or occupy our nation. They are here to stabilise the region to the point where international peace and security improves. We are grateful for the sacrifice that nations and parents in our partner countries endure.

To demonstrate that Afghanistan deserves the support, Hamid Karzai should reform the security sector by offering leadership positions in the army, police, and secret service to professional officers on the basis of a transparent competitive process. These men and women can draw tens of thousands of demobilised officers into a truly national campaign against the insurgency. We have the capacity to assume exclusive responsibility for the defence of our homeland and can demonstrate our will and commitment by taking initial leadership in up to four provinces.

Successful execution of a series of national programmes launched during between 2002 and 2004 show the potential of reform. National Solidarity, an ambitious programme of empowerment of the rural people through block-grants, has earned global praise, and the telecoms sector has demonstrated that the private sector can make legal money through providing services. Launching programmes to turn eight provinces and ten municipalities into models of good governance can demonstrate that the government is capable and committed to governing. The youth can be won over through programmes dedicated to job creation and enhancing the quality of education.

The presidential campaign resulted in a strong consensus on the need for a framework for peace-building and reconciliation to bring the insurgents within the national fabric. Afghan leadership in this critical area is essential and our culture offers a rich repertoire of mechanisms for conflict resolution. Once the government is committed to the people's security and wellbeing, public opinion can become a strong source of leverage on the insurgents to opt for peace and justice.

Both the international community and the Afghan people are sacrificing blood and treasure to create a stable Afghanistan and are hoping that Karzai will become a statesman. The responsibility is his to choose whether Afghanistan slips back into the past or moves into the future.