Anyone who first meets Hamid Karzai is immediately taken by his sartorial splendor — topped, of course, with his qaracul, that traditional Afghan hat made from the fur of a lamb fetus.
Karzai popularized these hats so that now they sell on the streets of Kabul for up to $35 — 15 percent of an average Afghan’s annual income. But Karzai’s hat is in fact a metaphor for his place in Afghan society. He buys his qaraculs in Paris, where they sell for $650, and he has several of them.
By now everyone knows that Karzai leads a government drowning in opium-fed corruption. Students pay teachers for good grades. Defendants bribe judges for favorable verdicts. Residents pay off city workers for basic services. Transparency International lists only four nations more corrupt than Afghanistan among 180 nations surveyed. Blame for this falls on the opium. Profits from its sale fill the wallets of Taliban insurgents who tax drug revenues at a rate of 10 percent. Last year, the United Nations estimated, the Taliban took in between $50 million and $70 million from these “taxes.” Government officers, meantime, take as much of the remainder as they can get away with.
As the corruption spreads through the economy, the natural question arises: Is Karzai dipping his own hands into the till — or is he a passive observer as most everyone else in his government enriches himself? Neither answer is particularly complimentary.
Behind that question lies the larger one facing Washington: Is Karzai a reliable partner worth fighting for? Or, is the widespread fraud committed during the election in August just another public indication of malfeasance at the very top of Afghanistan’s government? How should all of this play in the debate now underway on a new strategy there.
In other countries, heads of state put their corruption on display by building themselves sumptuous palaces. In Kazahstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev lives in a massive, blue-domed marble edifice overlooking the capital city with a front hall the size of two basketball courts and 22-foot ceilings. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s country estate has its own 18-hole golf course.
But in Afghanistan, Karzai lives in a presidential palace that predates him and is actually quite modest compared to many others. The state provides his limousine, and Kabul, one of the world’s poorest capital cities, just doesn’t provide many opportunities for conspicuous consumption.
There’s another useful measure, perhaps less precise but telling nonetheless. What has Karzai done to reduce or end corruption? Yes, he replaced his thoroughly corrupt interior minister. But what about going to the heart of the problem, the opium poppy crop?
The State Department estimated that opium cultivation dropped by about 6 percent last year, largely due to poor weather. But Afghanistan still produces 90 percent of the world’s opium, used to make heroin, causing ugly repercussions worldwide. In Russia, for example, drug enforcement officials have been complaining that heroin produced in Afghanistan is flooding city streets, causing 30,000 overdose deaths a year. Eliminating illicit drug cultivation is one of the hardest tasks in the world. Few nations have ever succeeded.
But, paradoxically, Afghanistan was one of them, and not so long ago. When the Taliban were in power, they managed in just one year to wipe out the nation's opium-poppy trade simply by exhorting the people, warning them that growing poppy was contrary to the teachings of Islam — and plowing under the crops of anyone who disobeyed.
That was in the spring of 2001, and hundreds of poppy farmers wound up in refugee camps or neighboring states that were more forgiving of their trade. But then, of course, came Sept. 11 and the American invasion. With the Taliban gone, the opium crops returned.
Since then the crops have grown exponentially, and American strategies have vacillated. The Bush administration advocated eradication, while Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy for the region, now argues that eradication is alienating farmers, “driving people into the hands of the Taliban.”
Well, what’s worse: allowing the Taliban to recruit a few hundred more angry Afghanis — or permitting these same people to provide the Taliban with up to $70 million a year? This decision falls to the United States because, in fact, Karzai is doing little if anything about it. As the State Department put it in a report earlier this year, “more political will and effort, at the central and provincial levels, is required to decrease cultivation.”
If that is a measure of whether Karzai is corrupt, then he fails. He gets away with it because he knows how to discuss the problem in terms perfectly tailored to appease his patrons in the West.
“The question of drugs is one that will determine Afghanistan’s future,” he said at a news conference in Kabul I covered a few years ago. “If we fail, we will fail as a state and eventually will fall back into the hands of terrorists.”
The American officials on hand nodded and smiled.