Afghanistan’s election debacle

August 26, 2009

Lee Sustar reports on the fraud and violence that swept Afghanistan during the August 20 presidential elections.

AN ELECTION intended to showcase Afghanistan's "emerging democracy" has instead exposed astonishing corruption, fraud and violence on the part of the U.S.-backed government.

Incumbent President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah are each claming victory amid allegations of vote-rigging and fraud on both sides, with Abdullah's supporters even hinting that his forces will take up arms if the election is stolen by Karzai.

As of August 25, the small number of votes counted showed each leading candidate with about 40 percent of the vote. If no candidate wins an outright majority, a runoff election will be held.

Threats from Abdullah, who served as Afghanistan's foreign minister after the U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban in 2001, can't be taken lightly. Abdullah is a disciple of the late Ahmed Shah Masoud, a leading guerilla fighter against the former USSR's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and, later, a leader of the Northern Alliance insurgency against the Taliban regime of the 1990s.

NATO soldiers on the scene of a bomb attack before elections in Afghanistan
NATO soldiers on the scene of a bomb attack before elections in Afghanistan (Shah Marai | AFP)

But Karzai's camp has an equally blood-soaked past. To secure support beyond his base of ethnic Pashtuns around Kabul, Karzai chose Northern Alliance warlord Muhammad Fahim as one of his running mates, in an attempt to split Abdullah's base among ethnic Tajik people. Fahim has been accused of human rights violations on numerous occasions. Karzai's other running mate, Karim Khalili, is another notorious warlord.

Karzai also made deals with warlords who dominate other regions and ethnicities: the Uzbek boss Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Hazara chief Muhammad Mohaqeq. In the western province of Herat, Karzai relied on Ismail Khan, another warlord infamous for imposing Taliban-style restrictions on women.

Now, Karzai's rivals allege that he has supplemented his political deal-making by stuffing ballot boxes. According to Faizullah Mojadedi, a politician from the Logar province, a Taliban stronghold, Karzai supporters used low voter turnout as an opportunity to rig the vote. He told the Washington Post:

In Baraki Barak District, only about 500 people were able to vote out of 43,000 registered voters. In Harwar District, nobody at all was able to vote out of 15,000 registered voters. Yet the ballot boxes from these places came to Kabul full. The fact that people were afraid to vote became a big excuse for those who wanted to take advantage of it.

If Karzai was out to steal votes, he wasn't alone. Numerous reports indicate that village headmen voted for entire villages, and men voted by proxy for women. According to Anand Gopal, a Kabul-based journalist, the credibility of the U.S. and the Afghan government have been dealt a major blow. In an interview, Gopal noted:

In many parts of the country, there appears to have been vote stealing, ballot stuffing, proxy voting, intimidation, etc. This creates a major credibility crisis for the Afghan government and its Western backers. One of the most important claims made by the West here is that it was able to bring democracy to the rugged hills of Afghanistan. But with what seems to be an exceedingly low voter turnout in the south of the country, and fraud in most parts of the country, the credibility of the U.S. and its Afghan partners have taken a major hit.

There is a growing feeling among Afghans that the Western involvement here is not helping them, and the elections only furthered that--they were seen by many as a show put on by the international community.

WHATEVER THE outcome of the election, the vote isn't a step toward "peace" in Afghanistan, let alone a withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops.

Just days after the election, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan informed U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke that more troops would be needed in addition to the nearly 60,000 American soldiers now in the country.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on CNN that the situation in Afghanistan is "serious and it is deteriorating," adding, "The Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated, in their tactics." Anthony Cordesman, a key civilian adviser to U.S. commanders, earlier argued that 45,000 more U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama's commitment to Afghanistan has raised the specter of an endless, bloody conflict that will keep the U.S. on the ground for years. In an article headlined, "Is Afghanistan Obama's Vietnam?" a New York Times journalist observed:

No matter who is eventually declared the winner of last week's election in Afghanistan, the government there remains so plagued by corruption and inefficiency that it has limited legitimacy with the Afghan public. Just as America was frustrated with successive South Vietnamese governments, it has grown sour on Afghanistan's leaders with little obvious recourse.

Meanwhile, the Taliban has countered the recent surge of U.S. troops with attacks of its own. As Anand Gopal described the situation:

The Taliban has responded to the military offensive by going on an offensive of their own. The number of insurgent-initiated attacks have reached record levels this year. Most of the attacks have been roadside bombs, although there have been more ambushes and suicide attacks than ever before.

This is all part of a trend that we've been seeing for the last few years. The number of insurgent attacks increased every year since 2005. In large part, this is because there have been an increasing number of troops each year, so there more targets to fire at. But it's also because the insurgency in general has grown stronger and more resolved.

The U.S. doesn't seem to be serious about buying off "good Taliban"--i.e., giving money and land to rank-and-file Taliban fighters to wean them from the insurgency. There has been a lot of talk about this, but up until now, the programs that exist to bring fighters in from the cold have mostly failed, due to corruption and inefficiency. Of course, if jobs and land had been available to poor rural Afghans in the first place, the insurgency wouldn't be nearly as strong as it is today.

Al-Qaeda plays almost no role in the insurgency. It used to be that al-Qaeda was the core of the Islamist leadership in the region and the Taliban a mere appendage. Nowadays, the situation is exactly reversed--the two Taliban movements (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) are the core, and al-Qaeda the appendage.

In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is almost nonexistent except for tiny pockets along the Pakistani border. In Pakistan, they have been greatly weakened by the drone strikes and the growing lack of safe havens due to the Pakistani state crackdown. Al-Qaeda is a movement that has almost no base among the local population in Pakistan, unlike the Taliban movements.

AT THE same time, the U.S. is having limited success at best in getting the Pakistani government to pursue the Taliban on its side of the border. As Gopal put it:

The biggest boon to Holbrooke and the U.S. was the Pakistani Taliban advance this spring from Swat to Buner, a district of the North West Frontier Province that is less than 60 kilometers from Islamabad. When this happened, the Pakistani military brass decided to retaliate and delivered a weakening blow to the insurgents. The Pakistani Taliban had never really threatened the Pakistani state--this was very exaggerated in the media--but they were a thorn in their side.

As a reward for the Pakistani crackdown, the military is likely to get millions of dollars in aid from the U.S. This has been something of a sore point among ordinary Pakistanis, who see a lot of money going to the military but very little of it filtering down to them.

The logic of U.S. policy in the region will lead Washington to further intensify the conflict, Gopal added:

Right now, some in the U.S. establishment say they don't want more troops, but many of their policy proposals require more. For instance, there's a lot of talk about increasing the size of the Afghan army and police. But to do this will require large amounts of trainers and other troops. Commanders on the ground also say that they want more troops for combat operations, since there are only enough soldiers to hold urban areas--the surrounding rural areas, where most Afghans live, are generally outside of their control.

I suspect that we will see one or two more escalations in the next year. The problem, however, is that this is exactly what we've been seeing for the last four years. U.S. policy makers have not arrived a strategy that is fundamentally different from the military-focused, troop-heavy approach of recent years.

Thus, the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan, once seen by many as a limited chapter in a "good" war to overthrow a brutal regime, has become an open-ended military engagement--and a cornerstone of U.S. imperial strategy in Central and South Asia. The antiwar movement, which has long focused almost exclusively on Iraq, has to take note.

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