Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 November 2009
Issue No. 971
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Playing charades

The latest twist in Afghanistan's election saga only compounds the West's failure, writes Graham Usher in New York

Two and a half months late, the results of Afghanistan's presidential election were announced on 2 November. "Hamid Karzai is president," said Azizullah Lodin, spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC), "because he was the winner in the first round [on 20 August] and the only candidate in the second" scheduled for 7 November.

The declaration came 24 hours after Karzai's sole challenger in the second round, former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew. He was brusque with his reasons. There was no reason to believe a second round of voting would be any less fraudulent than the first, he told an emotionally raw rally in Kabul.

According to information gathered by the UN-backed Elections Complaints Commission (ECC) and analysed by the US monitor Democracy International (DI) nearly one-third of Karzai's votes on 20 August were bogus; thus, his share of the vote dipped below 50 per cent, requiring a run-off.

Abdullah wanted reform of the IEC (whose members are all Karzai appointees) and replacement of ministers accused of ballot-stuffing and the running of ghost polling stations that existed on paper but not in fact. (These were stations that had returned resounding majorities for the president on 20 August). Karzai said no. So did Abdullah. "I hoped there would be a better process. But it is final. I won't participate in the 7 November elections," he said.

Karzai shrugged off the charges. Most Afghans were indifferent or angry. "We are hopeless with the current government and current system," said a student in Farah. Those Western powers who backed Karzai viewed the election as a nightmare from which they sought only to awake.

The Afghan election was among "the most difficult the UN has ever supported," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in an understatement. "This is not where we wanted to be after nine months," a senior aide to United States President Barack Obama said to the New York Times, in even more of an understatement.

The election showed up all that is rotten about Afghanistan: a venal government; the façade of "state" institutions like the IEC that are actually fronts for Karzai or this or that warlord; and a US- led occupation that appears determined to press on with "democracy" no matter how meaningless. It also sucked the UN deep into the conflict.

Steered by Kai Eide, its top official in Afghanistan, the international body's initial response to the election fraud was to downplay it. Once the fraud was revealed, courtesy of Eide's deputy Peter Galbraith, Galbraith was sacked while the US, UK and UN prevailed on Karzai to accept a run-off as the only way to salvage "legitimacy". After he accepted, the same forces urged Abdullah to stand down from a run-off. How to explain these contortions?

The US and UN knew that, without reform of the IEC, the 7 November poll was likely to be as fraudulent as 20 August. But neither the US nor the UN had the stomach to fight Karzai. On 29 October the IEC said it planned to increase the number of polling stations for the run-off, once more raising the spectre of non-existent polling stations. The ECC wanted fewer. The solution was to scrap the second round.

A second reason was turn-out. According to DI, out of an electorate of 15 million only 4.3 million Afghans actually voted on 20 August. With the Taliban resurgent and alienation growing, there was a fear that the next Afghan president would be elected on less than 20 per cent of the suffrage.

The third reason was fear.

Last month the Taliban warned that anyone engaged in organising the "soap opera" election would be targeted. On 28 October three gunmen attacked a guesthouse in central Kabul: five UN workers and three Afghans were killed, as were the gunmen, after a two-hour siege. Of the 25 UN staff staying at the hotel, 17 were election officials.

The conclusion was obvious. The Taliban could strike at will, including, for the first time, at the UN. And neither they nor the US nor NATO was prepared to risk more lives for a president who defied the law and stole elections. It was after the attack on the guesthouse that the idea of a second round became untenable.

What next? The US and UN had been working on a power-sharing deal in which Abdullah stands down in return for "influence" in certain key ministries. Karzai has ruled out a coalition but is under pressure from NATO to make his next government as "inclusive" as possible.

However, the US focus is not on governance. In the next month Obama will decide by how much he will augment the 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan. Few expect him to cede his military commander's request for 40,000 more soldiers. But all expect enough of a surge to secure the main cities and roads. The aim will be to deny Al-Qaeda a foothold and to so "degrade the Taliban that the Afghan army can deal with them," said an aide to Obama recently.

It seems ambitious. Last month the Washington Post published the resignation letter of Mathew Hoy, a senior US civilian officer in Afghanistan's Zabul province. Like the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the US and NATO were shoring up a "failing state", he wrote. Like during the Soviet period, foreign occupation was not containing the insurgency but fuelling it.

After Afghanistan's election charade few surely can dispute the first point. How long before the Obama administration accepts the second?

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