Monday, September 04, 2006

Wanted: An Iraqi Hamid Karzai

It is interesting to compare the recent history in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both countries are made up of a patchwork of divergent ethnic groups. Both countries were invaded and had their governments overthrown by US and allied forces: Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. And yet, the outcomes since the invasion cannot have been more different.

In Afghanistan, the various tribal groups came together in a gathering called a loya jirga, and hammered out a constitution. The process was not without controversy, but the constitution was generally accepted, and the first real democratic elections in Afghanistan's history were held in 2004 under its auspices. Now, Afghanistan's economy is experiencing positive growth for the first time in decades, and is definitely exhibiting positive progress.

In Iraq, the process of developing the constitution was mired in political fights and distrust between the ethnic and religious groups that made up the constitutional assembly - a process that ended with the final version of the constitution being rammed through despite the objections of the Sunni Arab representatives. Each election they have had in Iraq has been sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines, and the country's security situation has degraded to the point of civil war.

What is so different between these two places? It would be a fallacy to say that Afghanistan was less divided before the war: Afghanistan has long been the domain of warlords and tribalism, and the various ethnic groups are divided by tradition, and even language.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two boils down to one man: Hamid Karzai. As the interim president of Afghanistan in 2002, Karzai had possibly the worst job on the planet, having to negotiate with and earn the respect of the various warlords in Afghanistan, men with divergent interests, and men who had the ability to either make or break Karzai. Karzai was successful in this endeavor and in 2004 won a new mandate as the country's president.

What Iraq is sorely lacking is a true leader: someone who can garner the respect of the Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds, and work to bring peace between these groups. Yes, each of these groups has their own leaders, but they are only interested in promoting the interests of their constituencies and not the country as a whole. Yes, Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minster appointed by the Americans was even-handed in his approach, but Allawi is a technocrat. Allawi's thought processes were good, but Allawi's lack of real charisma limited his ability to carry out bridge-building between the ethnic and religious groups in Iraq and put a stop to ethnic/sectarian violence.

What Iraq needs is an Iraqi version of Hamid Karzai: someone with real charisma, who can earn the respect of the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, and build bridges between these groups without leaving any group feeling like he is favoring one over the other. Sadly, a leader like this has not stepped into the forefront, and thus Iraq has continued its descent into its abyss of violence and chaos.