Afghanistan And The Legitimacy Question

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

A relatively minor quote by Bruce Riedel, respected Brookings scholar and former head of Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review earlier this year, in this article in the New York Times caught my attention. Riedel said that “Even if we get a second round of voting, the odds are still high that Karzai will win. We have a fundamental interest in building up the legitimacy of the Karzai government.”

My worry comes from the second half of the quote and the use of the terms “fundamental interest” and the sharp focus on “the Karzai government” when Riedel talks about legitimacy.

First, on the “fundamental interest” part — can we declare a new rule among national security think tank wonks? When one uses phrases like “national interest” or “fundamental interest,” can that expert please explain what is meant by this word, “interest?”


With sugar on it and for the sake of the country, can we please explain what we’re talking about when national security experts invoke “interests?” (You know what happens when one assumes…)

Second, on Riedel’s point on “building up the legitimacy of the Karzai government,” I think he must have made a slight mistake here in offering this quote. I’m pretty sure he meant to make the case that the world has an interest in ensuring that Afghanistan’s governing institutions are legitimate. That’s different than narrowly focusing on “the legitimacy of the Karzai government.”

Sorry to be the stickler here, but it’s an important point. Neither the United States, nor any outside actor, can enhance the legitimacy of any Afghan political actor unilaterally or through our own actions. It’s foolhardy to think so, and I think is tied up with notions like American exceptionalism and how we view ourselves in the world.

It’s going to require those Afghan leaders to take the initiative. Frankly, as Hardin Lang from CSIS and I argue in an article for Foreign this week, the Obama administration would do well to require Afghanistan’s next leader to meet certain standards before we pour more resources in there.

The main reason why I think Riedel probably misspoke in this New York Times quote about the narrow focus on the legitimacy of “Karzai’s government” (as opposed to the legitimacy of Afghan governing institutions) is that many of the arguments Riedel previously made about the mistakes in U.S. policy towards the country next door in Pakistan are focused on how several U.S. presidents mishandled the relationship with governments in Pakistan.


In this article in the National Interest (hey, there’s that word again!), Riedel makes a persuasive case that it was misguided for various U.S. presidents to turn a blind eye to the bad behaviors on the part of Pakistan’s leaders through the years. Which is why I’m sure Riedel didn’t mean to be narrowly focused on Karzai and that he really wasn’t saying that if Karzai’s re-elected, we should boost his legitimacy at all costs. Riedel understands the mistakes that are made when we blindly support one leader versus another in other countries around the world.

The broader point, though, is that what makes certain leaders legitimate in the eyes of their own people varies from country to country and we sometimes wildly overestimate how much the U.S. government can actually do about enhancing the legitimacy of leaders in other countries. Look at Maliki in Iraq or Abbas in the Palestinian Authority — these are two cases in which one could legitimately ask whether the juice was worth the squeeze or the investment of U.S. treasure and blood was worth it to secure our interests in those places, however those interests were defined.

The legitimacy point in Afghanistan is an important one — and at this stage last month’s presidential election doesn’t look like it will help the legitimacy cause. It’ll probably take a few more weeks before we know who won these elections, and then the real battle for legitimacy will begin. But ultimately a leader or a government acquires legitimacy when it delivers on the basic needs of its citizens — something the current Afghan leadership has not succeeded in doing over the past five years.