Bye-bye Viceroy

Perhaps one man, Zalmay Khalilzad, stands out in Afghanistan’s recent history as a man who wielded real power and used it unabashedly to influence Afghan affairs in the field. Khalilzad was there when the haphazard Bonn meeting participated by a handful and handpicked people convened under the auspices of the United Nations to chart out Afghanistan’s destiny. Khalilzad was there when the Afghans convened their emergency Loya Jirga. Khalilzad was there when they held their Constitutional Loya Jirga. Khalilzad was there when the Afghans held their first- ever Presidential Election. He was there, not as a spectator, but as a real life influence, facilitator, partner and activist. As an Afghan American and a US high-ranking diplomat representing the President of the United States and serving as the US Ambassador, his loyalty to the Afghan cause seemed unwavering. Perhaps, that is why, it was he and not the president of Afghanistan who would announce major decisions in policy, in issues related to internal politics and the course of affairs. He would meet with controversial politicians, solve a variety of their disputes and influence the Afghan government’s political path. All of these served as a double edge sword, cutting into problems faced by President Karzai on the one hand and promoting the notion that Karzai was a ruler by name only, on the other. In actual terms, Karzai, on his own right has emerged as a politician of import in Afghan history. And now that “Viceroy Khalilzad is leaving Afghanistan to assume his new position at a graver job in Iraq as the US Ambassador, Karzai would have to show that he is his own man.

Khalilzad may have helped Karzai in a variety of issues, but Afghanistan is too big for two politicians to take care of it only by themselves. The problems facing Afghanistan are manifold and involve all aspects of social, economic, and political issues. Khalilzad, by virtue of his position served the US interests first and foremost. While this does not necessarily mean that he ignored Afghan needs altogether, the Afghans as reflected in the free Afghan press, blamed Karzai for letting him in on all issues related to the Afghan government. People expected their president to rely more on Afghan citizens in mapping out of their destiny. They wanted to see balances and checks in place to prevent the government from being ruled by one person at the top. History has shown that that is how dictatorships are born. Democracy requires peoples’ participation and in President Karzai’s government, there is no evidence of that yet.

But problems are many. President Karzai, now a shrewd politician, in his speeches shows his people and the world at large that he is not only aware of the problems of his country, but that he also wants them to be remedied. He has at times endeavored to quantify some of these problems and has promised to improve upon the situation, but has always fallen short of assigning target data. It was a surprise for many Afghan watchers when recently in his address to the donors conference in Kabul held for three days from April4-6, 2005, he pledged his government to raise the per capita income of the Afghans from $200 to $500 in five years. While how he is going to do this needs to be described by his government, other figures given out by him or his government are not encouraging. For example, Ambassador Khalilzad assured the conference that the United States has already planned to increase its aid from $ 2.5 billion in 2004 to 5 billion this year. There has been no announcement of how much of this money will be spent for the rebuilding of the infrastructure and how much for the military. One report stated that $ 1.4 billion was needed for the expansion of the national army and the police. On the other hand, The Afghan government just prior to the conference announced its budget for the year 2005. The Afghan cabinet had adopted this $4.75 billion budget for the current year. But it is important to note that 93% of this budget is foreseen to be received from foreign donors. On the one hand, in Afghanistan where the average value of a dollar oscillates around 50 Afghanis, and where the average salary of a government official including professional staff like doctors and nurses is around $ 50-70 per month, talking in billions of dollars seems at odds with the realities. Hearing a figure like that keeps people at awe. On the other hand what kind of a government expects to run successfully when it may have control only over 7% of its budget?

The government claims to have scored economic expansion at a staggering number of 29 percent three years ago, which has been followed with expansion rates of 16% and 8% in the past two years. Originally the expansion claimed during the first year of the transitional government was announced to be 30% and this column had asked a simple question of how much is 30 percent of zero? And the zero was where the government had claimed it had started.

President Karzai raised extremely interesting subjects in his speech to the conference. These included a need to search remedies for the flow of aid money, which is presently happening outside the government budget into Afghan projects. This truly affects the confusion in government planning for services and development of the infrastructure. He had named a number of priorities. “We must now work together to overcome chronic poverty, and build Afghanistan into a stable and thriving economy in the region,” Karzai told delegates gathered at the Foreign Ministry in Kabul”, says an Associated Press report. “We are keenly aware of our people’s expectations.” Said President Karzai. It is heartening to hear a politician state that he is aware of his people’s expectations. However, today people demand clear-cut goals and targets for achieving those objectives. For example they need to know about the mechanisms of the working of the government for the achieving of those objectives. They need to know if the country is on the right track; they need to know if there is any mechanism of checks and balances in place. That is why many look forward to the upcoming parliamentary elections in Afghanistan that in itself is a complex yet interesting social issue. Only this time Dr. Khalilzad will not be there as his nation building experiences and his loyalty to the White House will be direly needed elsewhere.

So now that Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan American diplomat is preparing to leave Kabul for Baghdad pending his confirmation by the Congress, it will be time to test the politics of Mr. Hamed Karzai as practiced single handedly regarding the fate of his country. He will have to address many economic issues such as poverty (Afghanistan ranks sixth among the poorest countries of the world), unemployment, housing, health, education, hunger and disease and most importantly security and corruption as well as the huge needs for the construction and or reconstruction of the infrastructure. It will not be enough for him to tell the nation that his government has been able to extend new roads, but the nation would demand to know exactly how many kilometers of roads have been constructed and where? It would not be enough to promise people health services while they would demand to know how much disease and disability would be reduced over the course of a given year or period. The people would ask questions about when and how their suffering would end and their wait would be over and the government promises met. 4/10/05