The warlords’ president

November 4, 2009

Eric Ruder analyzes the latest developments that handed a re-election victory to Hamid Karzai--in the context of the debate in the U.S. political establishment over how to escalate its war and occupation.

AFGHANISTAN'S ELECTION farce came to an appropriately laughable end in early November when incumbent President Hamid Karzai was declared the winner, after his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from a runoff vote scheduled for November 7.

Karzai tried to steal the first election on August 20 through massive vote fraud, but the theft was so brazen--more than 1 million votes cast for him in the first round were disqualified--that he was pressured by international observers into admitting he hadn't won the necessary majority. The runoff was scheduled for early November, but a week before, Abdullah pulled out.

Karzai initially appeared to oppose cancellation of the runoff in the hopes that a victory, even in an election without an opponent, would help him restore a semblance of legitimacy to his U.S.-backed reign.

But U.S. officials quickly expressed satisfaction with the result, apparently in the hopes of avoiding another round of fraud and the difficulties associated with providing security for voters and election observers in Afghanistan's far-flung provinces. Karzai relented and accepted victory.

Hamid Karzai has secured a second term as president of Afghanistan
Hamid Karzai has secured a second term as president of Afghanistan

In a teary speech, Abdullah described his decision to withdraw as a personal decision based on his concerns about fraud. But the emotional veneer concealed a cold political calculation.

Abdullah had called for the replacement of Karzai's handpicked chair of the Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Ludin, plus other voting reforms that Karzai flatly refused to implement. But Abdullah no doubt figured that withdrawing would be a better way to preserve his chance at a future bid for power than losing.

Thus, Abdullah--who served as minister of foreign affairs after the U.S. established an "interim" Afghan government in December 2001 and continued in that post after Karzai's first election in 2004--didn't call on his supporters to boycott the election, nor did he call for protests.

Abdullah has also said he won't join Karzai's government, but in a political system marked by frequently shifting allegiances among warlords, drug traffickers and various ethnic and religious leaders, enemies are rarely irreconcilable forever.

Case in point: The various warlords that make up the Northern Alliance served as a parliamentary opposition to Karzai until they made their peace with him--and helped him turn out votes, both real and fake--on August 20.

Perhaps Abdullah will try to fill the opposition vacuum they left behind. Or he may have cut some other deal with Karzai or the U.S., despite his insistence that he accepted nothing in return for his decision not to contest the election.

NEWS OF the latest twist in the presidential election came as the U.S. war in Afghanistan intensified, with October bringing the highest monthly death toll yet for U.S. soldiers--the result of roadside bombs and two helicopter crashes that claimed the lives of 22 U.S. personnel in the closing days of the month.

The increased fighting between U.S. and NATO forces and insurgent rebels has not only produced a spike in the number of troops killed in action, but led to a sharp increase in the number of injured troops. "More than 1,000 American troops have been wounded in battle over the past three months in Afghanistan, accounting for one-fourth of those injured in combat since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001," according to the Washington Post.

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are now the weapon of choice for Taliban fighters, and some are so powerful that they can destroy the state-of-the-art mine-resistant vehicles that the Pentagon had deployed to protect troops. "Walter Reed [Army Medical Center's] Ward 57 provides wrenching proof of the devastating effectiveness of the bombs, with patients suffering amputations, spinal cord damage, traumatic brain injuries and fractures," the Post reported.

With President Barack Obama weighing a request from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top Pentagon officer in charge of Afghanistan, for an additional 40,000 to 80,000 U.S. troops in addition to the 68,000 already in Afghanistan, the number of casualties will inevitably rise further.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-NATO war is continuing to inflict a devastating toll on Afghans that is only rarely the subject of mainstream media attention.

David Kilcullen, a former Australian army officer and now a consultant to the U.S. and other NATO countries on counter-insurgency tactics pointed out that in recent air attacks, the U.S. has killed 98 civilians for every two "insurgents" killed. As antiwar author Richard Seymour wrote on his blog:

If that ratio holds for the air war as a rule, then consider that the U.S. is currently boasting of having killed up to 25,000 insurgents. Twenty-five thousand is 2 percent of 1.25 million. Lacking a Lancet-style cluster survey, one can only make an educated guess as to whether such a figure is approximately realistic.

There was one cluster survey carried out for the first nine months of the invasion and occupation, which estimated that 10,000 civilians had been killed, the majority from air attacks. A similar survey today would be reporting the effects of a far more intense aerial campaign, in a war lasting for eight years now. Who can say that the soaring use of cluster bombs, daisy cutters, "smart" missiles aimed at wedding parties, drone-based ordnance and the usual deposits of unexploded ordnance will have harvested a negligible number of bodies?

THE GROWING casualties from its war--along with the tarnished credibility of the Karzai government--has put the U.S. government in a difficult position.

It pinned its hopes for a stable, U.S.-friendly Afghanistan on Karzai's ability to construct a viable central government that can command an army. But Karzai's reliance on the country's hated warlords to cement his rule makes a legitimate central government a long shot at best.

And if the situation weren't already bad enough, the New York Times revealed in late October that Karzai's brother--Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is known for profiting immensely from the opium trade and running a large area of southern Afghanistan around Kandahar with an iron fist--has been on the CIA payroll for most of the last eight years.

Not only does Karzai's brother provide intelligence to the U.S., but he is helping the CIA run the Kandahar Strike Force, a paramilitary force. He also rents a large compound outside Kandahar--the former home of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's founder--to U.S. Special Forces. "He's our landlord," a senior American official said.

Karzai's CIA ties help him avoid the raids and arrests that other Afghan drug lords face, and his control over the lucrative drug trade has almost certainly increased as a result.

The revelations come at a horrible time for U.S. forces hoping to portray themselves as the protectors of civilians in Afghanistan. "If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves," said Major Gen. Michael Flynn, the senior American military intelligence official in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration insists the U.S. is fighting a "war of necessity" in Afghanistan. It has all kinds of rationales--keeping Americans safe, protecting Afghan civilians, liberating Afghan women, crushing the Taliban insurgency, keeping al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base of operations.

But the collaboration between U.S. military and intelligence forces and the warlords, drug dealers and paramilitaries expose these justifications as a pretext for the real reason the U.S. won't bring its troops home from a country that has rejected their presence.

The U.S. wanted war in Afghanistan because it saw the September 11 attacks as an opportunity to pursue its imperial ambitions in Central Asia. Washington's aim was never, first and foremost, to defeat the Taliban. In fact, the U.S. viewed the Taliban's rise in Afghanistan prior to September 11--with its focus on law and order and eradicating the drug trade--as a boon to regional stability.

If the U.S. had really wanted to capture al-Qaeda operatives responsible for September 11, why did U.S. officials reject, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, Mullah Omar's overtures to hand over Osama bin Laden in exchange for the U.S. calling off its invasion?

The answer: The prospect of establishing a military occupation in a region rich with oil and natural gas ranked higher for those who call the shots in U.S. foreign policy than capturing al-Qaeda leaders.

Now that the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars in futile efforts to occupy both Iraq and Afghanistan, these decisions appear foolish. But in the early 2000s, the neoconservative vision of remaking the Middle East according to U.S. wishes commanded overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. And today, the Obama administration continues to work from the Bush playbook on Afghanistan.

It's time to end the tragic waste of lives and money in Afghanistan and bring the troops home now.

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