Karzai’s “Southern Strategy”?

This holiday I read Alpha Dogs, the story of the Sawyer Miller Group, a political consultancy firm that pioneered international electioneering. Long before Karl Rove and James Carville became household names, Scott Miller and David Sawyer were peddling the techniques and snake oil of American electioneering to dictators and reformers throughout the world. Before it dissolved in 1991, the company steered Corazon Aquino to power in the Philippines, helped Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel, and backed Israel’s Shimon Peres.

What advice, I thought, would the Sawyer Miller Group give if it was hired by Hamid Karzai? How would it steer the career of this moderate, one-term president who is seeking re-election but is haemorrhaging both international and local support and has failed to deliver much of what his voters — especially his core Pashtun constituency in the south and east — expected?

In figuring out what Sawyer Miller would say, it may be worthwhile recalling what they told Kevin White, the Mayor of Boston, when he looked as though he was headed for defeat in the late 1970s: people don’t like you, but they trust you to get the job done. Make the election about competence, not charisma.

Voters don’t like Karzai anymore, but some still approve of his record. Unfortunately, they are concentrated in the northeastern, northwestern and eastern parts of the country.  In Karzai’s base, among Pashtuns in the  southeast, little more than half of respondents (56%) told the Asian Foundation the government is doing a good job. So Candidate Karzai, Sawyer Miller would probably say, needs to focus on southerners.

This means getting southerners to vote and then, doing more for them — even to the point of discrimination. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to be accused of favouring southern Pashtuns, the Sawyer Miller consultant might say. True, it might alienate Tajiks, and Uzbeks, the old Northern Alliance, but it is probably safe to assume that the U.S will ensure they do not try to break up the country, even if they make loud noises. So it should be smooth sailing.

But here’s the catch: southerners reveals a clear preference for resolving issues at the community level and are more distrustful of the Kabul government. That may not be surprising with two-thirds telling pollsters their elected representatives are unresponsive. So perhaps Candidate Karzai should launch initiatives aimed at greater decentralisation for the south and compel friendly MPs to organise weekly “town-hall meetings”. Karzai might also persuaded to float the idea of directly-elected governors too.

But of course there’s no election without pork — or at least the promise of pork. Problems related to electricity and water account for the greatest concerns in the southeast and east, so our consultant would probably advise Candidate Karzai to say he intends, if elected, to pour the majority of development aid into electricity and water.  How about a campaign pledge with some specifics – like guaranteeing electricity from 8am-5pm every day and at least two hours most evenings?

Finally, our consultant would probably take a look at Karzai’s image. Southern Pashtuns are a conservative lot, the “guns and God” crowd of Afghanistan. To enhance his appeal among his key voters, Karzai would probably have to overcome the perception — honed by his opponents, the Taliban — that he is a liberal Western stooge.  Karzai tried to do something about this last year when he blocked Paddy Ashdown’s appointment as the United Nations’ special envoy to Afghanistan and kicked a UN and a European Union diplomat out of the country.

In the run-up to the election, our consultant might say, having a another go at the international community might not be a bad idea.  Kicking out a few human-rights NGOs would be a start and then he could ban driving by women, including by foreign women. In fact, why not ban all alcohol, including for foreigners. A raid on a restaurant frequented by diplomats might make good copy. 

And, like in Saudi Arabia, why not try to legislate that all women — again including foreigners — must wear headscarves at all times?  Oh, the consultant might suggest, Candidate Karzai could ban any contacts with Israel or Israelis for good measure (even if none exist). He might also want to look at charging key ministers and businessmen with corruption, Khodorkovsky-style, and perhaps flirt with the idea of getting them condemned to death.

Depending on how the popularity contest proceeds proceeds, even more draconian ideas – like banning women from begging, actually executing the convicted criminals — or even some light harassment of the minority Hazaras – might be on.

All of this would likely create great delight among many in Karzai’s southern Pashtun base. None of it is appealing. None of it would (or should) find a hearing in Western capitals. And most of the programme should be actively opposed.  But thinking about Karzai’s options this way gives an idea of where he will be coming from as he tries desperately to continue running the country – and therefore what the scope for international action will be.