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It’s Karzai’s World, We Just Pay for It

Karzai’s fantasy ideology is an immensely clever balancing act – undermining every other actor so he looks stable

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s attempt last week to prevent the seating of the country’s new parliament is yet another reason we should have gotten rid of him a long time ago. But even as I’ve grown tired of writing op-eds about his fecklessness and our insane tolerance for it, I continue to find Karzai’s style of governance fascinating. It manifests a self-contained world, in which Karzai is both the problem and the solution. This conveniently distracts his foreign financiers from the many real problems of the country, which might actually be solvable with a different president in charge.

Examined more closely, Karzai’s style is extremely well adapted to his purpose of staying afloat at any cost. Karzai makes himself stable by increasing the tensions between every other potential power source in and around the country. Consciously or not, he views stability as a zero sum game: the less others have, the more he has. So he almost systematically lashes out at each of the local players — the US, the UN, Pakistan, or the Taliban — in turn. Even better if he can turn one of these against another, as in the trip to Russia he cut short due to the parliamentary crisis. Presumably this was aimed at threatening the US.

There’s a logic to it, once you stop trying to figure out what Karzai is trying to achieve for Afghanistan — which is nothing. It’s about making sure that none of the other players feels confident — and thus keeping himself in office.

So, for example, the assassination of a regional leader by a suicide bombing might inspire Karzai to attack Pakistani interference, condemn the US for “civilian casualities” that provoke the insurgents to such bombings in retaliation, or condemn the Taliban for anti-Islamic behavior. He will never address the concrete details of the case (e.g., the leader was slain by a tribal rival who was being pushed out of the local drug trade). Reality, you gradually understand, has nothing to do with Karzai’s pronouncements.

In fact, his style of governance reminds me of what Lee Harris, in a landmark Policy Review article, called a “fantasy ideology.” As Harris explained, speaking of al-Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers,

A fantasy ideology is one that seizes the opportunity offered by such a lack of realism in a political group and makes the most of it. This it is able to do through symbols and rituals, all of which are designed to permit the members of the political group to indulge in a kind of fantasy role-playing. Classic examples of this are easy to find: the Jacobin fantasy of reviving the Roman Republic, Mussolini’s fantasy of reviving the Roman Empire, Hitler’s fantasy of reviving German paganism in the thousand-year Reich.

But while all of these are group fantasies, Karzai’s is solitary. It’s a fantasy of Afghan nationalism in which he is the state (and he somehow overlooks the fact that this state is propped up by foreigners). It’s a fantasy of Afghan tradition that’s skin-deep, ignoring the fact that his family is doing more than perhaps anyone in Afghanistan to undermine the traditional power structures and forms of local governance. And it’s a fantasy of Islam that overlooks the fact that this religion abhors drugs and those who market them (which his family and coterie are known for).

Karzai’s fantasy often takes the form of impassioned speeches about matters unrelated to the crisis at hand (at the time of the parliamentary crisis, he attacked foreign troops for destroying trees). At the opening ceremony, he made a bizarre attack on one of the mainstays of international development, provincial reconstruction teams, saying that they are “serious obstacles to the process of building government” and “trying to kill the young democracy of Afghanistan.” But of course, it’s mainly Karzai who is trying to kill that young democracy. He then proposed Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, a war criminal and early associate of Osama bin Laden, as speaker of Parliament, perhaps just to rile the Westerners who strongarmed him into allowing Parliament to sit in the first place. While these outbursts have caused many to doubt Karzai’s sanity, they make more sense when you realize that he’s playing to a non-existent crowd.

Nor does he much notice. As Harris put it,

the fantasist inevitably treats other people merely as props — there is no interest in, or even awareness of, others as having wills or minds of their own. … for him, the other is always an object and never a subject.

And so with Karzai. He can get quite sentimental over Afghan suffering — and by the accounts of those I know who have spent a lot of time with him, Karzai is a “nice” man, warm and agreeable, if bewilderingly irrational. But he’s nice to Afghans in the way we are to our pets, not to our fellow humans. This is why Karzai appears indifferent to the fact that he has squandered the chance to be the founding father of a new democracy, to leave a name that will echo with glory and honor down through the centuries to come. The solipsist’s hidden victim is, of course, himself.

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