Saturday, September 19, 2009

Afghanistan's election and its uncertain aftermath

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has reason to take much for granted. It cannot be easy redeeming a country that has been identified as the antithesis of all that western civilisation stands for. And anybody who bears that onerous mantle, can claim a certain latitude. He may occasionally stray and cause his patrons some concern. But his long-term promise is that he is the only bulwark against chaos.

The elections to the national presidency and the provincial councils on August 20 were intended to mark the consecration of Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s leader. Though there were murmurs of dissent and disgruntlement from all parts of the country, he was still expected to enjoy a solid advantage over all his rivals. Rather than vote their tribe or ethnicity, most of Afghanistan’s electorate was expected to endorse Karzai’s leadership as a gesture of faith in the transition that he symbolised.

The outcome in fact has been the reverse. Never since the most recent western intervention in Afghanistan began eight years ago, has the prospect of catastrophic failure been so real. And even if the election results, which are yet to be formally declared, seem to indicate a decisive victory for Karzai, his erstwhile patrons in the west are deeply alarmed and his opponents within seething in rage.

Despite formidable odds, Afghanistan’s electoral process could have passed the test of fairness had Karzai and his allies not willed otherwise. Over the year or more preceding the elections, Afghanistan’s small but vigorous independent media was reporting a conspicuous lack of popular interest in the voter registration process. Closer to the election day, there were open allegations of fraud in the issue of voter identity cards. Surprisingly though, on election day itself, all the overt suggestions were that polling had concluded smoothly, with little violence and for the most part, fairly. Early expectations were upbeat as U.S. President Barack Obama certified the whole process a resounding success.

It turned out though, that the U.S. had a particular script in mind, that Karzai was unwilling to play by. The U.S. believed that Karzai did not have the popular backing to win a clear majority of the popular vote in the first round and would be forced into a run-off with his nearest opponent. That in its perception, would compel him to work out broader alliances and to cement the foundations of future cooperation with Afghanistan’s more credible political figures.

Karzai though was in a hurry, obviously believing that he had done all that was needed to win in the first round. The difficulty was that he had in the process, brought onto his slate, allies that the west found thoroughly unacceptable. And as evidence pours in before the country’s Electoral Complaints Commission, it is becoming increasingly obvious that he took ample recourse to the safeguard of stuffing the ballot, to ensure that he was not inconvenienced by a run-off election.

The new Afghanistan of Hamid Karzai looks very much like the old. Back in business are all the warlords and tribal chieftains who could not quite stop their violent bickering after the collapse of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992 and triggered a devastating civil war that made the advent of the Taliban in 1996 seem – for a while at least – like a form of deliverance. The only person missing from the star-cast is the Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose close associates though, have regained places of honour in Afghanistan’s politics.

One key difference now is that the west is committed to continuing engagement, unlike in the early-1990s, when they absent-mindedly subcontracted the Afghanistan enterprise to Pakistan, once having achieved their main objective of defeating Soviet strategic designs. But it is increasingly becoming painfully evident that the western focus and strategy are all wrong in terms of their fundamentals.

According to the annual report of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, civilian deaths in 2008 rose almost 40 percent over the previous year. Of the total number of 2,118 civilian casualties recorded in the country, 55 percent were attributed to anti-government forces or the “bad” side and 39 percent to the “good” side represented by pro-government forces. The remaining six percent could not be clearly attributed.

UNAMA statistics have their critics and are believed to err on the side of the “good”. Even so, the figures that are available show that in terms of concern for civilian life, the good side is not scoring very much higher than the bad. And further note should be taken of the fact that air-strikes by the U.S. and allied forces account for 68 percent of all civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces.

The “action at a distance” strategy preferred by the western powers – with its use of smart bombs, unmanned drones and all those other eye-catching technological gizmos -- has the attraction of minimising military casualties on their side. But contrary to its early billing as the most precise and painless of warfare techniques, it is proving a blunt instrument, exacting a heavy toll of innocent civilian life in Afghanistan. And each air-strike that kills indiscriminately, is a moral victory for the insurgents that the west is engaged in mortal combat with.

With the inauguration of the Obama administration, the U.S. signalled a change in strategy, represented by the deployment of many more troops. The consequences in terms of plain statistics are clear: over the first six months of this year, civilian deaths in Afghanistan rose 24 percent over the same period of 2008. But the culpability of the good side in these was markedly lower. Just 30 percent of 1,000 civilian casualties were attributable to their actions over this period, representing for the first time since 2007, a significant moral advantage for the “good” over the “bad”. Yet, two-thirds of the casualties inflicted by pro-government forces were on account of air-strikes, signifying that their preferred technique still remained of dubious value.

Unsurprisingly, coalition military casualties have increased since this strategy came into play. The toll in July 2009 alone was estimated at 76, a quarter of the total number killed over 2008. A deeper U.S. engagement on the ground is considered vital to shoring up the flagging commitment of western allies to the continuing operations in Afghanistan. But with higher military casualties being virtually foretold, its inevitable political consequence would be the final splintering of an already fragile domestic consensus for war.

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