Until a couple of years ago, whenever I discussed Iraq in Washington, I always ended up being asked one question: how to find an Iraqi Karzai?
The reference, of course, was to Hamid Karzai who has led the Afghan government since the fall of the Taliban in 2002.
More recently, however, that question has been replaced by another.
This time, I am asked: How to find a Maliki for Afghanistan?
Here, the reference is to Nouri al-Maliki who has been Prime Minister of Iraq since May 2006.
What are the reasons for this change?
The first, perhaps, is that in 2002, as the post-Taliban government was being formed in Bonn, Germany, Karzai was a known quantity already. He had lived in the United States for years, working as consultant for American oil companies. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, he had worked with the Bush administration to prepare the toppling of the Taliban.
In contrast, Maliki was unknown to the Americans.
He had suddenly emerged as a compromise candidate to replace Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari whom some Iraqis perceived as being too close to Tehran.
However, perhaps the most important reason for Karzai's eclipse and Maliki's rise is that while the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated since 2006, Iraq has started to see some light at the end of the tunnel in which it found itself since the last years of Saddam Hussein.
Visits to Afghanistan and Iraq these days reveal contrasting narratives.
While the index of hope is clearly falling in Afghanistan, it is rising in Iraq. The current economic boom in Iraq may be attributable to high prices of oil. But there is no doubt that the reduction in terrorist attacks, the slow revival of state institutions, the return of the army as a reassuring presence, the American military " surge", led by general David Petraeus, and the failure of extremist groups to develop a coherent strategy have also helped change the mood in Iraq.
The symbol of that change is Maliki.
In contrast, the gloomy mood in Afghanistan, illustrated by rising violence, widespread corruption, the disintegration of state institutions, and an anemic economy are blamed on Karzai.
Individuals matter in history.
As Plekhanov observed, history sets the stage and writes the script. However, the actors who play on that stage could create widely divergent experiences.
Although roughly of the same age, Karzai and Maliki are very different actors on the stage of history.
Let us start with the appearances, the importance of which in politics is often underrated.
Karzai has tried to build an almost regal persona.
He has invented a new style of dressing unknown to Afghans, complete with an Uzbek-style mantel and a felt cap copied from Indian pundits. His hand-made shirts, often adorned with beautiful embroidery, complement the attire's almost theatrical accents. He has also started growing a designer-stubble, a two or three-day beard calculated to reassure the traditionalists without frightening the modernists.
In contrast, Maliki has not grown a beard to reassure the Islamists. He has stuck to the traditional moustache popular in Arab countries, especially Iraq. The Iraqi Prime Minister dresses correctly but inexpensively. The fact that he wears a necktie is a statement that he does not share the views of the Tehran mullahs about the masculine wardrobe. Maliki looks like the average Iraqi urban middle-class man working for government or private business.
While Karzai's image is designed to distance him from the average Afghan, Maliki's is intended to bring him closer to the average Iraqi.
There are other differences. Karzai lives in a palace that emphasizes his remoteness. Maliki lives in a government residence with a minimum of pomp. To be sure, this contrast is partly because Karzai is President, and thus head of the Afghan state, while, Maliki heads only the government.
By cultivating his image as an almost regal savior standing above factions, Karzai has inspired expectations that no politician could satisfy in present-day Afghanistan. In contrast, Maliki has taken care to act as the first among equals, a man who believes in the messy process of reaching compromise.
Karzai likes grandiloquence, pretending that every one of his speeches are of historic importance. In contrast, Maliki makes few speeches, and is careful not to sound pretentious.
Maliki's modesty, hard work, and personal integrity have served Iraq well. Whatever happens next, he deserves credit for having taken up the most difficult job in the world with unexpected success.
Nevertheless, those who search for "a Maliki for Afghanistan" may be groping in the dark.
The reasons for Afghanistan's apparent failure and Iraq's apparent success are not entirely, or even mainly, personal.
To start with, the Afghans and their U.S. allies made the mistake of creating an American-style system presidential system in Afghanistan. What post-Taliban Afghanistan needed was a decentralized system of power-sharing reflecting the county's ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity.
Iraq, which shares Afghanistan's diversity, had the good sense of opting for such a system. While the Afghans look to the president to solve all their problems, Iraqis know that no one man could produce the desired results.
The U.S., advised by Karzai made another mistake. It insisted on disbanding the armed Mujahedin groups that had fought the Russians in the 1970s and 1980s and then taken on the Taliban in the 1990s. As a result, the only native armed groups left in the country were the Taliban who could return to the offensive while the new Afghan army was far from being ready to protect the country.
Iraq had a different experience. The Kurdish and Shiite armed groups that had fought Saddam Hussein were not disarmed. Their continued presence helped maintain peace in several provinces pending the re-emergence of the national army.
In Afghanistan, a good part of the anti-Taliban political elite were branded as "warlords" and elbowed out of the game. That gave power to exiles like Karzai who had no popular base of their own.
In Iraq, the opposite happened. The "warlords" received a share of power as part of a process that would bring about their marginalization within a decade or so.
A Karzai for Iraq would not have worked because the Iraqis, having just shaken off Saddam Hussein's yoke, would not have accepted a new form of concentrating in the hands of one man.
In multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries, Iraq's parliamentary system of government is better suited than the presidential system installed in Afghanistan. No ruler of Afghanistan had ever controlled all of that country since its creation in the 18th century. As a result, few Afghans looked to the central government to solve their problems. The presidential system however has created expectations that cannot be satisfied, even if we find a Maliki for Afghanistan.
What Afghanistan needs is not a Maliki, although that would be of immense help. Afghanistan needs decentralization, power sharing, the rehabilitation of men and parties that had fought the Russians and the Taliban, and a new style of politics based on modesty, hard work and a constant search for compromise.
*Published in the London-based ASHARQ ALAWSAT on October 3, 2008.