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Looting as a Unification Strategy?

How can Hamid Karzai establish the central government’s authority?

June 3, 2004

How can Hamid Karzai establish the central government's authority?

Hamid Karzai may not be the first modern-day politician to invent a national dress. This honor actually goes to the founder of Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan, Mohamad Ali Jinnah.

Yet, Mr. Karzai is definitely the first leader whose wardrobe makes him a fashion item.

His dress is in fact a symbol of national unity: The green-and-white chapan — that is, the silken coat he is wearing — is part of the traditional garb of the Uzbeks.

He borrowed his karakul hat from the Tadjik highlanders in the Pajnsher region north of Kabul. Meanwhile, his fellow Pushtuns recognize Hamid Karzai as one of their own by his long shirt and loose trousers.

And yet, it evidently takes more than coats and pants to build a nation. While Hamid Karzai is probably uniquely suited to realize this exceedingly difficult project, it would serve him well to heed the lessons that the history of the country provides.

In picking Mr. Karzai as Afghanistan's leader after the ouster of the Taliban, the Bush Administration made the best possible choice. This should come all the more naturally to Mr. Karzai, since he is a direct descendant of Afghanistan's first "nation builder."

Hamid leads the Saddozai-Khel (clan) of the Popalzai tribe, who are a leading member of the Durrani- or Abdali-federation of Pushtun tribes.

They in turn are the ones who made history in 1747, when the young Saddozai leader Ahmad Khan led his troops of tribal mercenaries from Persia back into their homeland around Kandahar.

Sensing a power vacuum in the wider region, he rallied the Pushtun tribes around Kandahar and had them anoint him their "shah" (king) in October 1747.

He quickly assumed the rather exalted title, "Durr-i-Durran," or "Pearl of Pearls," a testament to his wide range of talents and abilities.

From a rather weak political base, Ahmad Shah immediately started on a wide-ranging series of conquests, first seizing Kabul, then leading tribal armies into the Moghul empire on nine campaigns.

He added Kashmir, Sind and the Western Punjab to his domains and founded an empire which extended from eastern Persia to northern India — and from the Ammu Darya to the Indian Ocean. In 1756, he occupied Delhi and carried off as much wealth as possible.

Ahmad not only excelled as a strategist, defeating a vast Indian army near Delhi at Panipat in 1761. His success rested even more on his abilities as a tribal politician, an orator and even as a poet whose 2,500 works are being recited to this day.

He showed the same traits of political acumen that one can observe in Hamid Karzai, understanding the rules of a tribal society — and using them to his advantage.

Ahmad Shah governed with the help of a council of khans, each responsible for his own tribe. Thus, all matters of larger concern were decided on through a centralized process of government, while each chief dealt with his own tribe.

Tribal politics are a constant exchange of give and take, of negotiation to balance interests. Leadership rests on prestige, consent and the ability to deliver. Authority has to be earned time and again.

Ahmad managed to “deliver” through his successful raids. But he also had the personal charisma to tie the independent minded tribes to him — that's where his talents as a public speaker and poet came in.

Without stretching the comparisons, decision makers in Washington could learn some lessons from the “Pearl of Pearls:” To tie the tribes and diverse nationalities to himself and a central government, Karzai needs real authority — and the ability to “deliver” substantial benefits to the Afghans.

As forays into neighboring countries are now out of question, the government in Kabul might be able to distribute income derived from a pipeline or other ventures down the road. But right now, the major sources of "loot" are the U.S. government and the international community.

In its campaigns against the resurgent Taliban, the Pentagon continues to work directly through the regional tribal leaders and warlords. This might produce some short-term benefits, but will continue to weaken Karzai.

To put this nation-building project into proper perspective, one should also remember that the current strife in Afghanistan is partly rooted in the efforts of the central government in Kabul to extend its authority over the tribes in the provinces after the ouster of King Zahir Shah in 1973.

The Pushtun tribes never surrendered their autonomy to act on their own behalf to Kabul. They resent having to give up control over their own affairs through taxation — or even the drafting of their sons into a national army.

The war might make them more receptive to the idea of giving up some of their authority to a just and fair government in Kabul.

But almost 30 years of terror and bloodshed also must have left them traumatized and distrustful.

One also needs to realize that the war has seriously undercut the Pushtuns’ leading position among the other nationalities in Afghanistan, especially with the Uzbeks and the Tadjiks (hence Karzai's hat and coat).

These two ethnic groups formed the backbone of the campaign against the Taliban — and now hold key positions in the Kabul government, while still fielding strong contingents of fighters under their own control.

Just as Karzai, they are well aware that the word "Afghan" used to mean "Pushtun" from the times of Ahmad Shah until at least the 1930s, when the Pushtun clan of Zahir Shah — relatives of Karzai — established its rule in Kabul.

One should hope that the international community’s — and the United States’ — approach to Afghanistan will take its clues from Ahmad Shah’s successes.