Sunday, December 21, 2014

Maliki And Karzai Problems Likely Preventable With Consistent US Support

Even as ISIS' successor organization, the Islamic State, continues to butcher hundreds of Iraqi innocents every week, and as Afghanistan continues to flounder in its search for a new president, we wonder how did the local governments in these places screw up so badly?   
    How did local leaders emerge such as Nuri al-Maliki, who alienated a third of Iraq and precipitated an Islamist insurgency?  And how could Hamid Karzai create a kleptocracy in which a few hundred people plundered billions of dollars?
    Is it our fault that these are our partners?  Perhaps America simply has bad taste, much like a lonely heart going wild on internet dating sites and making all the wrong choices.  We try too hard and come up perpetually short.  As a nation we always end up consorting with the tattooed biker.  
    Or is there some inherent problem in the nations we are trying to help?
    The answer is that we make the bed we lie in by failing to recognize the realities of power politics in developing countries.  We are the worst enemies of our closest friends because we pull the rug out from under them when they need it most.  And then we cry foul when they find friends somewhere else; friends who are usually some of the most unsavory characters around.    
    Unsavory but reliable; and reliability is what you need when the chips are down and you are leading a developing country.
    Hamid Karzai is not corrupt himself, but he allows corruption because America has never guaranteed that it would be there for him.  The US never guaranteed a certain amount of money over the next five years after we leave; never assured him he would have a certain number of troops to protect the people; nor even given him much political support before or after 2014. The nadir of relations came with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who spent most of his tenure berating Karzai publicly for shortcomings inherent in the Afghan culture.  The same shortcomings that were exacerbated in large part by the Americans' own lack of support.
    Heads of state in places like Afghanistan and Iraq need provincial power brokers they can call upon to ensure their wishes are carried out. These power brokers gain power in their areas when they hand out favors. It all costs money and influence.  America prefers to ignore this dynamic.  But with no guaranteed income to prop up the regime, it is hardly surprising Karzai doled out favors to those who reliably helped him for years, and turned a blind eye to their transgressions.
    Fast forward to Nuri al-Maliki.
    The US pulled out of Iraq against the advice of its generals. We left behind minimal aid and poor political support.  As one observer put it on PBS in August, the US hardwired itself into the Iraqi political system and then pulled out almost lock, stock and barrel.
    This automatically pushed Maliki farther into the hands of the extreme Shia factions.  The army was taken over by Shia political favorites.  The Sunnis lost influence and their leaders targeted as the state became more personality-oriented.  
    Sure, other factors played a part.  With Maliki, as with Karzai, these developments served their own personal preferences; for instance, Karzai's desire to rule by consensus and Maliki's need for more and more power.  
    But in reality what choice did they have?  They had no one else to turn to.  We have not been a sufficiently reliable ally and the resulting vacuum was filled by unsavory characters.  It was a lesson reinforced as US military advisors disappeared from local bases, leaving the security forces to try to maintain a professional competence by themselves.
    This concept I detail here is not new. Ambassador Ronald Neumann, who headed the US effort in Kabul from 2005-07, has often spoken about it.
    One last question.  How much do these shortcomings arise from the leaders' own personal failures and how much because we left them no alternative but to lie down with dogs? It's impossible to assign percentages.  But we are equally complicit at the least.  50% to blame, that is.
    And it is 100% certain that when things don't go well, and the countries founder badly, we never point a few fingers of blame back at ourselves