Dead end

Cheryl Benard co-directs the Alternative Strategies Initiative at the Rand Corp. and has worked extensively in Afghanistan.

In 2003, I met Afghan President Hamid Karzai under somewhat unusual circumstances. The Rand Corp., my employer, and Sesame Workshop had teamed up to create an Afghan version of “Sesame Street.”

We were designing short video episodes to be shown to the new generation of post-Taliban Afghan schoolchildren. Karzai had agreed to appear in one of the episodes.

The plan was to film a group of Afghan American children, decked out in Afghan folklore clothing, with Karzai during one of his visits to Washington. The undertaking, which had been difficult enough to arrange, seemed jinxed.


There was a blizzard the day of the filming, and volunteers with four-wheel-drive vehicles had to be dispatched to drive the children to Blair House, the official guesthouse for heads of state. Karzai was hours late, held up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and when he finally arrived, he was furious. He had been insulted, he felt, by Congress, grilled about Afghanistan’s growing drug trade and corruption. He had just fired his ambassador, whom he blamed for the debacle, and as he stomped through Blair House in a rage, I thought it was curtains for my little project.

Then he saw the children, and his mood brightened. He summoned them over, and as they settled down to chat, the relieved film crew began to roll the tape. Karzai told the children about his favorite bedtime stories as a child, what he remembered of his elementary school days, what games he had most enjoyed and how many countries he had visited.

The children were adorable, and Karzai seemed to be relaxing -- until a young girl asked him what he liked best about being president. A lengthy silence fell. He seemed to forget where he was. His face grew dark, and the adults in the room began to exchange worried glances. At last he spoke. “Nothing,” he said.

As I think about the upcoming elections in Afghanistan, scheduled for August, I often remember that moment. In retrospect, 2003 was a happy, positive time for Karzai. The world, and his own citizens, still loved him. Even the tough questions from U.S. lawmakers had been intended to understand the scope of the problem and find a way to help Afghanistan, not to embarrass him.

Today, Karzai stands accused of tolerating the involvement of his brothers in massive corruption and in the drug trade, of vacillation and of incompetence. Former friends and trusted ministers have turned against him, denouncing him in public and positioning themselves as rivals for his job. Once venerated at home and abroad, he is now widely seen as a failure. History will judge. But something about this fall from favor made me curious, so I spent a little time reviewing the biographies of Afghanistan’s former leaders.

Many countries have stormy histories. But Afghanistan is exceptional in its track record of first venerating, then ferociously turning on, its leaders. On that snowy day in Washington, Karzai was still the world’s darling; at home, he held the status of a potentate.


Not counting Karzai, 29 individuals have ruled Afghanistan since 1700. Of these, only four served out their terms and died a natural death. The others were dethroned, assassinated, imprisoned, deposed and killed, deposed and exiled, deposed and hanged, beaten to death and so forth.

Portraits and photographs show these kings and presidents in their glory days -- handsome, proud, with intelligent eyes and uplifted chins. Some were traditional. Others spent time abroad and came back with what they thought were compelling new ideas for reform and progress. Regardless, they were first feted, then hated and finally destroyed.

In more recent times, the picture gallery begins with a confident portrait and concludes with grisly photographs of hideously abused mortal remains. The five who were “only” assassinated can count themselves lucky. Among the others was Najibullah, the former Soviet-backed president who in 1996 was dragged out of a United Nations compound, beaten, castrated, killed -- slowly -- and displayed from a lamppost.

Sometimes the animosity toward the fallen leader is apparently so great that death alone cannot satisfy it. Former President Babrak Karmal died of cancer a decade after being deposed, but his body was dug up by the Taliban, who intended to dump it in a river before being persuaded by local villagers to put it back in the ground.

Today, the Afghan people need a lot of things -- security, electricity, hospitals, alternatives to growing poppies. Looking at their history, I submit that what they also need is something we in the United States refer to as “respect for the office.”

To venerate new leaders as demigods, only to demote them to villains within the space of a few years, is not a recipe for successful nation-building. Afghans need to honor the laws and the institutions of their new democracy and to stop focusing so excessively on the individuals who govern them. They need standards of conduct, rules obeyed both by the leader and his kin and cronies, pragmatic expectations -- and, when they sour on their leaders, an established process of political succession that does not include murder.


Yet the international community, instead of encouraging a transition to pragmatic governance, appears to have been drawn into Afghanistan’s dysfunctional personality cult. Far too much attention is being paid to whether Karzai should run again, whether he is still a superstar and, if not, which superhuman individual should be put in his place to pull off the miracle and save Afghanistan.

This kind of thinking has entrapped the country for three blood-soaked centuries, preventing the emergence of a functioning state. Instead, the world’s democracies should try to help the Afghans escape from the vortex of their history and build a state that serves them, resting on institutions and processes instead of personalities and emotions.