If the West needed a credible election in Afghanistan to help prove that its war there is a good idea, it sure didn’t get it, writes Mustafa Qadri
In the wake of last week’s seriously flawed election in Afghanistan, NATO staff have expressed their “desperation” to pull out of the country.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an analyst with close contacts inside NATO headquarters in Brussels cited plunging domestic support within member countries for the war, as well as the worsening violence inside Afghanistan as factors contributing to their desire to end military involvement.
Elsewhere the message being sent by governments participating in the war has shown a continued determination to see their military presence in a positive light with Western diplomats quick to call last week’s election a “success”. But deep misgivings have already been aired by a wide range of observers and participants, including presidential hopeful and likely runner up Abdullah Abdullah; by foreign officials (generally off the record); and by Afghans themselves.
There is widespread cynicism around the country over what level of authority Afghanistan’s next President will actually have over the country following the recent poll.
“Everything has already been decided by the US and NATO and the real winner has already been picked by the White House and Pentagon,” notes the courageous Afghan parliamentarian and campaigner for women’s rights Malalai Joya. “[Incumbent President] Hamid Karzai has cemented alliances with brutal warlords and fundamentalists in order to maintain his position,” she adds.
The Western countries with armed forces in Afghanistan desperately needed a credible result at the polls to shore up support at home for their presences, but as more evidence comes in of serious flaws in the conduct of this election, it seems certain that, whatever the result, this exercise will have actually weakened support for the war rather than strengthened it.
Early fears of widespread electoral fraud are increasingly being confirmed. Karzai, seeking his second five-year term in these elections, is expected to be declared the winner, at least of the first round of the voting, with the possibility that there will be no further rounds if he wins more than half the votes in the first round. But his main challenger accused him of being heavily involved in rigging the vote, as have many independent observers.
Karzai is increasingly unpopular at home and abroad because of his administration’s rampant corruption. It now appears that his handling of the election is emblematic of this.
According to the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FFEFA), a non-governmental organisation that monitored voting wherever limited security and resources permitted, thousands of voting cards, necessary for citizens to cast a vote, were stolen, perhaps helping to explain why so many votes were apparently cast at stations without voters almost before the polls even opened.
FFEFA also noted instances of men voting for women. Few women have managed to vote, let alone partake in parliamentary politics because of limited female election staff necessary to supervise the segregated polling booths. The story of women is central to the plight of Afghanistan, yet in this election they are noticeable primarily for their absence.
Last week it was revealed that Karzai approved a new law, applicable to Afghanistan’s minority Shite Hazara community, that would enable men to effectively imprison their wives should they refuse to have sex. The move is widely seen as an attempt to secure votes from Shia Islamists and parallels similar overtures by Karzai to Sunni conservatives like Abdul Rasul Sayyaf whose political and religious views are practically identical to those of the Taliban.
Although Karzai clearly still enjoys the support of the West, his deals for the support of local and sectarian leaders have done much to erode the credibility of the Western rationale for war as a way of improving the freedoms of Afghans, especially women.
Karzai has also courted the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum. The feared Dostum, implicated in a wide range of atrocities before and since the American occupation of Afghanistan commenced in October 2001, was specially flown into the country from Turkey to shore up support for Karzai among Uzbeks, one of the seven main ethnic groups in Afghanistan that live primarily in the north of the country.
Early fears of a low voter turnout have also been confirmed, further undermining the vote as a legitimate expression of the will of the Afghan people. One of the reasons for this is that Afghans have little confidence in Karzai, or any of the other 41 candidates in a total that includes former planning minister Ramzan Bashardost and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.
Another reason Afghans stayed away was fear of violence, including attack by the Taliban which distributed leaflets throughout Afghanistan — from the slums of Kabul to remote regions of Helmand in the south and Kunduz in the north — threatening civilians with dire consequences if they voted.
The fears of locals were a realistic assessment of the security situation they are facing. According to Human Rights Watch, “there were at least 13 politics-related killings and at least 10 abductions of Electoral Commission officials, candidates, and campaign workers” from 25 April to 1 August. It adds that pro-Karzai bureaucrats have also intimidated other presidential candidates and their campaign staff.
As well as these incidents, a string of daring attacks in the heavily fortified capital of Kabul, including a suicide bombing outside NATO headquarters, have also horrified ordinary Afghans. Their concern is shared by voters in NATO countries and Australia as public support for the war continues to plunge.
The analyst who spoke with newmatilda.com told us that NATO planners are acutely aware that the war is losing support. The Afghan conflict has been marketed as the “good war”, a war of necessity to establish democracy in a troubled Central Asian nation and prevent it from becoming a haven for international terrorists.
Yet the process of occupying the country has deepened ethnic divisions while fostering a powerful anti-occupation sentiment, especially among the largest and heavily marginalised Pashtun population in the south and east of the country.
So far, there is little sign that the various ethnicities have taken to the democracy that the West’s armies have brought, at least in its current form. Few Pashtuns have voted, either out of fear or protest. Most of the voting has occurred in the northern, non-Pashtun parts of the country.
Meanwhile, disaffection with the pro-US regime has been fuelled by its failure to deliver any of the basics, like security, jobs and civil infrastructure, ordinary Afghans desperately need.
That the Taliban is predominantly formed from the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and bordering parts of Pakistan is no coincidence. Although Pashtuns constitute just over 40 per cent of the population, ethnic Tajiks dominate army and security authorities. That situation is due mainly to the fact that recruitment has been difficult in the unstable and Taliban-friendly Pashtun regions. Another factor is the legacy of the American-led occupation of Afghanistan that commenced almost eight years ago.
That began the current ascendancy of ethnic Tajiks, who are also known as “Panshiris” because they belong to the Pansher Valley to the north-east which for centuries has bred feared warriors. Much of the Afghan National Army officer corps and soldiers engaged in operations in the Pashtun areas are Tajiks.
Taliban commanders have ably capitalised on the resentment held by Pashtuns who see the Tajik-dominated army, and not just Western forces, as foreign interlopers.
Meanwhile, adding to the West’s woes is the mounting death toll of the violence in the country. The UN estimates that 1000 have been killed in the first seven months of this year alone, up 24 per cent from 2008. Most of those deaths have been caused by the Taliban but many locals blame foreigners, not the Taliban, for the violence.
When will that violence end? No one knows.
Whatever the result of the election and the effect it has on NATO member populations, it is already clear that it will have no bearing on US power in Afghanistan. That means the current escalation of war under the Obama Administration will continue although the ultimate aim may no longer be to defeat the Taliban so much as to force them to the negotiating table.
Whatever this election has achieved, it won’t result in a government that represents its people and acts as a sovereign state.