WikiLeaks recently disclosed diplomatic cables written by U.S. Embassy officials in Kabul who argue the need to pressure President Karzai to remove his energy and water minister, on account of alleged corruption (for more background information, read the Associated Press wire). The American will to get rid of once powerful mujahedeen commanders such as Ismail Khan – who once controlled most of Western Afghanistan – is nothing new. The strongmen the Americans have been depending upon to provide stability in the provinces after the 2001 intervention now appear to undermine the construction of a strong central state along Western lines.
What is interesting in this case is that the Afghan President, a globally recognized head of state, refuses to comply with American demands. It raises questions not only on the nature of Afghan politics, but also on the nature of the Afghan state. President Karzai is de facto the head of a nation-wide patronage system. In the Western press and decision-making circles, it often translates into a nation-wide corruption network. It might be time for American policymakers to conceive of Afghanistan in more realistic, less normative terms.
Former commanders such as Ismail Khan are often described as powerless remnants of the civil war that could easily be marginalized. If this is the case, one might wonder why President Karzai, under strong pressure from U.S. officials, still decided to keep his energy and water minister on board. The reason that first comes to mind is that the former Emir of Herat still has some sort of power and leverage in his region. I believe he does. If I am right, it would tend to show that giving him a minister position in order to move him out of Herat did not have the expected results. Here rests the complexity of the ruler’s dilemma of trying to conform to Western expectations while depending upon local actors for political capital.
Contemporary state-building does not create states in a European or Western model. President Obama was right: Afghanistan will not be a Jeffersonian democracy anytime soon. What is it then? Is Afghanistan a new kind of hybrid state? Should it be conceived in terms of “empire building,” in which central authorities operate as a first-among-equals to negotiate agreements with local strongmen, who themselves have the capacity to conduct their own personal diplomacy?