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Nick Mills Headshot

A Powerless "King" Hamid Karzai?

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Is Hamid Karzai mad? The question is being taken very seriously in Kabul, and Washington, and other capitals of the countries who have poured blood and treasure into post-Taliban Afghanistan in hopes that they're not just sprucing it up for the Taliban's second coming.

I say "King Hamid" only half in jest. In my hours of conversation with Karzai that led up to my book, KARZAI -- The Failing American Intervention and the Struggle for Aghanistan (Wiley, 2007), I got the impression that in his heart of hearts he wanted to be king, and not just president. Certainly he was wistful about the old days of the monarchy, and unfailingly referred to King Zahir Shah as "His Majesty" even in the most casual conversation. One of Karzai's early acts as head of the provisional government, and the act of which he was most proud, was to bring the aged king back from his long exile in Italy so that he could die in the palace from which he had been evicted in the 1973 coup that set Afghanistan on a path to one disaster after another.

The great irony is that whatever title Karzai wears, be it King or President, he has never for a moment been Afghanistan's true sovereign. The de facto ruler of the country since the Taliban were driven out of Kabul in 2001 has been the President of the United States. Karzai has not been empowered to do much of anything of substance, certainly not control the actions of the thousands of foreign troops in his country, whose killing of Afghan civilians, "collateral damage" or not, has been a frustration and a shame to Karzai. (Just this week, U.S. troops opened fire on a civilian bus near Kandahar, killing or wounding dozens of people.)

Five years ago, President Karzai was hugely popular outside of Afghanistan. When he delivered the Commencement speech at Boston University in May of 2005, he was greeted like a rock star. But the very next day he was in Washington meeting with President George W. Bush to demand more control over the foreign troops on his soil -- and was publicly turned down. He returned to Kabul angry and humiliated. In my months of conversations with Karzai, he never once mentioned the name of George W. Bush. Afghans respect power, and Karzai has been shown over and over to have none, which has led pundits to dub him the Mayor of Kabul, or President of Arg Palace. Wouldn't that be enough to drive anyone around the bend?

There have been various reports that Karzai has suffered a mental breakdown, or even that he is using drugs. I am reliably told the mental breakdown story is not true. Whatever the case, I find it a very sad state of affairs that the man we picked to lead Afghanistan to a bright new future was never entrusted with the power to do so. We made him, and we broke him. And now what?

Wall Street Journal reporter Ann Marlowe's interview with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah may answer that question, but the answer is fraught with peril. Dr. Abdullah, who finished second to Karzai in last year's flawed election and bowed out of a runoff, is quoted as saying that there is no way forward under Karzai's government. Which begs the questions, if not Karzai, who? And how? The U.S. government may favor Dr. Abdullah; there were rumors during the presidential campaign that the Americans wanted Abdullah to win. But Afghanistan has a constitution now, and if Karzai should somehow be found incapable of governing, the line of succession is clear, and Dr. Abdullah does not stand in that line. And he himself rules out regime change by any means other than the parliamentary process.

Unless President Karzai totally self-destructs, or actually does join the Taliban, as he has threatened to do (not seriously, one hopes), he will continue to be the Mayor of Kabul, and the President of the Arg Palace; he might as well call himself King Hamid, for all the power it would bring him. And the U.S. will proceed with whatever plans and strategies it has for Afghanistan, employing what are called "work-arounds." But when we have to work around the constitutional leader of the country to achieve our goals for Afghanistan, are we not standing the entire mission on its head?