Hamid Karzai and Shah Shuja: In Afghanistan, History Always Repeats

Another War, Same Mistakes

One would think that great powers, given their presumed advantage in information, power capabilities, and choices, would have other recourse than to wage war in small, thorny states. Unfortunately for both those powers and for the peoples they invade, great powers have a tendency to engage in quagmire conflicts in small nations, pitting their ideological and realist goals against a popular struggle for independence and territorial sovereignty. In the majority of these situations, the occupying power eventually pulls out – only after great cost, political damage, and loss of life. Whether in Vietnam, the Philippines, Algiers, or Afghanistan, great power-insurgent wars follow much the same pattern.

Afghans by now know how this story goes. They have fought five such wars: three with the British, who apparently never learned their lesson; one with the Soviet Union; and now one with the United States. While the United States has slightly different goals than its predecessors – denying Afghanistan as a base for international terrorist groups as opposed to securing it as an outpost and ally against another great power – the strategy is the same. All three powers viewed their military engagement through traditional political-realist terms and have attempted to establish a government as a partner and puppet. This government has never been able to maintain security or even legitimacy, leaving the foreign power with its hands in a hornet’s nest without the protective glove of legitimate domestic partners.

In Anglo-Afghan War of 1838-1842, Shah Shujah filled the role of domestic proxy. Shujah first took the Afghan throne in 1803 and was deposed by his brother in 1809. Upon the British invasion in 1838, Shujah was reinstated as a “popular” leader to unite and control the Afghan peoples and ensure Afghanistan as a British outpost against Russian influence.

250 years later, Hamid Karzai replicates Shujah’s position. Examining the story of Shujah and the British reveals significant challenges to a foreign power in Afghanistan to which Hamid Karzai and the Americans have also fallen victim. Karzai is a relative of former King Mohammad Zahir Shah and was a government official before he fled to Pakistan when the Taliban came to power in 1994. Karzai organized resistance to the Taliban and was named chairman of an interim government upon the American invasion in 2001, becoming president six months later.

Karzai and Shujah have played a very similar role in Afghan domestic politics and in their relationship with their foreign partner. Both were put in power with expected popular acclaim and were initially accepted. Over time, they gradually lost domestic legitimacy. The resulting ineffectiveness led to contempt and disregard from their foreign patron. The gradual loss of legitimacy and influence of Karzai and Shujah as chief of chiefs in Afghanistan is the most important element contributing to the failure of the foreign forces to establish a stable, friendly state in Afghanistan.

Shujah’s story began in 1838 when the British invaded Afghanistan, triggered by concerns over Emir Dost Muhammad’s ties to the Russians and the likelihood of Russian and Iranian invasion.

The British chose to put Shah Shujah in power rather than a British viceroy or military governor, assuming that as a former Afghan king he would be able to hold the populations of Afghanistan and facilitate British goals more easily and more cheaply than a full British military occupation would have.

The British were quite blind to the reality that Shujah did not have popular support and that he never could have. Shujah did not come into power of his own accord and thus had not demonstrated the power that is the right to rule. Worse, he had allowed foreigners into a position of power in Afghanistan, the proudest, most independent of all nations.

In his memoirs the optimistic Sir John Kaye described the crowds welcoming Shah Shujah into Kandahar from streets, balconies, and rooftops. “It was a busy and an exciting scene. The curiosity was intense. The enthusiasm may have been the same.”

Kaye’s colleague Captain Havelock made a rather different reading of the day: “Unless I have been deceived, all the national enthusiasm of the scene was entirely confined to this Majesty’s immediate retainers. The people of Candahar are said to have viewed the affair with the most mortifying indifference.”

Kaye gloomily affirms this view upon the arrival of Shujah two weeks later in Kabul, lamenting the much less enthusiastic welcome Shujah received there. Kaye observed that “the miserable paucity of Afghans who appeared to do homage to the king must have warned Shah Soojah, with ominous significance, of the feebleness of his tenure upon the affections of the people, as it bitterly disappointed and dismayed his principle European supporters.”

This display of apathy on the part of the Afghan people was a blow to British confidence that they would be able to withdraw relatively quickly. They depended upon Shujah’s ability to persuade Afghans of his authority; this was not a good omen.

Shujah initially tried to cater to all parties, granting lands, offices, and allowances to the major tribes. He was also able to play off one tribe against another, earning the guarded loyalty of the Dourani for stepping in against their enemies the Barakzai.

However, despite his fluency in Afghan tribal politics and the vast British treasury supporting him, Shujah was not able to maintain this control. Even the support of the Dourani was tepid, as they could never support the initiator of a foreign invasion.

As a chief of chiefs Shujah never had sovereign authority over any of the tribes; at best, he was able to make suggestions to their elders and wave the empty threat of withdrawing their allowances.

The main concern of the British – thus Shujah’s main concern – was that the tribes did not attack British convoys and that they allowed Shujah to remain in power. Certain tribes were content with this for the time being, except the Ghilzai, who were not only opposed to Shujah as a foreign tool but also opposed to any Suddozai being in power.

The Ghilzai were the symbolic start of the unraveling of the regime. They could not be persuaded by Shujah’s words or money and by 1840 resumed their habit of raiding British convoys on the route to India. This was a major threat to the British in a strategic location as well as a harbinger of other popular resistance.  At the same time,  the many small tribes of southeast Afghanistan (southern Pakistan), far from Shujah’s sphere of influence from Kabul, began to rise up against the pretext of authority of Shujah and the foreign troops. In June of 1840, deposed Emir Dost Muhammad and his son Akhbar Khan begin to agitate for jihad.

This confluence of forces – aggression by the Ghilzai in a strategic location and agitation for ideological resistance – was the worst nightmare of the British. Lord Mcnaghten had already begun to circumvent Shujah and negotiate directly with tribes. The British even tried to negotiate with  the Ghilzai, whom they could offer far more money than Shujah was able to. Negotiation directly with the real power in the arena was indeed what many tribes preferred, and by this time many realized that Shujah was not the strongest player in Afghanistan. The negotiations the British undertook with tribal elders, bypassing the authority of the king they themselves had set up, did not help his image.

By late 1840 the failure of negotiations and the power structures the British had instituted was real. The resistance to the British, which had never disappeared, flared up once again under the call of Dost Muhammad, Akhbar Khan, and many mullahs to jihad and to drive out the foreign non-Muslim invaders. British troops struggled to pacify villages – with, consequently, civilian casualties, atrocities, and the resultant increase of anti-foreign sentiment – and tried to ward off pillaging and harassment by the Ghilzai and now the Dourani.

British politicians were at this time making the decisions that could most hurt their Afghan effort. Under pressure from the opposing political party, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne pressured Lord Auckland to slash costs and to resolve the problem of Shujah’s legitimacy. In September 1841, Mcnaghten cut allowances to the Ghilzai, who were attacking British convoys in violation of their agreements anyhow. Cheated, the Ghilzai joined the jihad. Now not only Shah Shujah’s authority was threatened; British communications with India via the area controlled by the Ghilzai and thus the security of British troops was seriously threatened. In late 1841, even the Afghan troops mutinied; Shujah had neither the power nor the money to retain them.

This story stops here. There is little use in describing the fall of Shujah and bloody conclusion to the first Anglo-Afghan War: the story of Hamid Karzai and the first American-Afghan War is not yet over, and there is no reason to believe that it must end as the first war did. While the British were a foreign force involved in Afghanistan in response to the threat posed by Russia, the Americans are combating a threat from Afghanistan itself. American and NATO forces must differentiate between cooperative Afghans and uncooperative Afghans – that is, those who have chosen to ally with Taliban and other Islamist groups against the failure of modern systems. While both British and Americans face an insurgency standing in the way of their efforts to build an Afghan state, the British had the advantage of being able to kill any Afghan in their way; the Americans must be very careful whom they target and root out insurgents rather than wiping out villages and thus a potential population of cooperators. Karzai plays the same role Shujah did as an intermediary between foreign and domestic forces. Karzai has a more difficult job in simultaneously showing strength against those tending towards Islamism and promoting cohesion among cooperators. Yet although he retains power and the commitment of his foreign patrons, Karzai struggles to retain any legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans or his foreign patrons.

From the start, Hamid Karzai made an effort to appeal to all Afghans as a nationalist leader. He worked to form an ethnically balanced cabinet in 2002 to incorporate Afghanistan’s leading political actors and appealed to the collective Afghan people, claiming the establishment of “stability, security, peace, economic well-being of the Afghan people, reconstruction” as his goals in partnership with the international coalition.

Even his garb – combining the Tajik qaraqul hat, the Uzbek chopan cloak,, and the traditional Pashtun beard, trimmed to Arab and Western standards – speaks to Afghan pluralistic nationalism.

However, Karzai has faced a continual legitimacy crisis. However he may appeal as a longtime Afghan politician, he is still viewed as one who has facilitated a foreign presence in Afghanistan. The very presence of Americans and their allies on Afghan soil is detrimental to their mission; continued civilian casualties do not make the foreigners any more likeable. While the Americans are in Afghanistan to establish a stable, non-Islamist state and prevent the spread of Islamism, this has not translated effectively into winning the hearts and minds of Afghans. Civilian casualties have been high, although both American and Taliban leadership urge strategies to reduce civilian casualties. In 2009, civilian deaths jumped 14% to 2412, the highest number yet, although NATO-caused deaths fell from half to a quarter of total civilian deaths.

Karzai has attempted to prove his nationalist credentials by verbally attacking the Americans, most often on the matter of civilian casualties. In response to the American apology for a recent killing of nine Afghan boys – mistaken for insurgents – Karzai carped that “The people of Afghanistan are tired of these incidents and excuses, and condemnations cannot relieve their pain. I am asking you on behalf of the people of Afghanistan that there be no repetition of this incident.”

The implication is that the Americans are no longer wanted – hardly a good rhetorical strategy for an ally.

While such rhetoric may help Karzai’s case domestically, it has strained relationships with his partners. Karzai’s words resonate internationally; Afghanistan today does not exist in a closed system, and Karzai’s rhetoric is heard both by supporters of the international presence in Afghanistan and by its critics. Such antagonism has hurt America’s case, and American decisionmakers have likewise taken a more critical stance towards Karzai. Karl Eikenberry, the United States’ ambassador in Kabul, wrote to Washington that Karzai “is not an adequate strategic partner” and “continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden.”

This provides an interesting point of comparison with the analysis of Lord Ellenborough, governor-general in India, who wrote in 1842 that “the king we set up has not, as we were erroneously led to imagine, the support of the nation over which he has been placed.”

For the British as for the Americans this failure of their strategic partner was suggested as a good excuse to withdraw. The ability of their domestic partner to maintain order was a critical concern. Although both British and Americans sought stability primarily as a military-maintained level of security, in practice stability would have been due as much to a flow of funds to tribes as to military pacification. Neither Karzai or Shujah were ultimately able to maintain this. Both were circumvented by their foreign partners out of frustration at their inability to maintain control. While this created a better flow of capital and thus better linkages between the foreign power and tribes, it undermined the Afghan government and thus foreign goals.

Governments and NGOs currently sponsor projects in Afghanistan at around $5.5 billion annually – about 45% of Afghan GDP.

Many of these work directly in villages, building schools and clinics or providing funds to village heads directly, notably the National Solidarity Program. In late 2009, the Shinwari tribe, one of the larger tribes in Pashtunistan, declared their allegiance to the Afghan government and opposition to the Taliban (and to government corruption and illegal activities) in return for $1 million in American development aid.

Village elders prefer direct patronage, distrusting the corrupt government. Many villages have never received promised aid from the government. Aside from Karzai’s status as a foreign proxy, this failure to secure traditional means of patronage and loyalty is in itself a catalyst for loss of legitimacy of government. International partners have not helped in this area; the US has threatened to withhold funds as a challenge to Karzai to address government corruption and misappropriation of funds, and Britain, the main partner of the US, has actually done so to the tune of $137.6 million.

There is little likelihood that this will actually improve the proceedings of the Afghan government. It will certainly damage the essential flow of funds to Afghan partners.

It remains to be seen whether Karzai and the Americans will be able to resuscitate the effort to produce a modern state in Afghanistan. Karzai’s actions over the last few years, intended to show that he is independent of Americans, instead seem to counteract the legitimacy of the very state he is supposed to be building up. This has a strong impact on Afghan perceptions of the promise of such a state. Persistent corruption, cronyism, civilian casualties, and bureaucratic incompetence kept public opinion low; the disastrous presidential election of 2009, in the words of Peter Galbraith, “shifted Afghan public perception of Karzai from contempt to scorn.”

Since 2007 the Americans have been struggling to turn the war around; their increased emphasis on culturally-informed strategy and establishing buy-in of local tribal authorities would play a major role in success in creating some kind of state, democratic or otherwise. This strategy is radically different from British and Russian strategies (and even initial American strategy), which bulldozed Afghan institutions and accepted civilian deaths as a strategy in itself. Karzai will likely not be a major player in Afghanistan for much longer; hopefully an Afghan state will outlast him.


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