Afghanistan today is a site where several momentous decisions are being played out involving numerous actors, each seemingly less able than the other of dealing with these historic burdens of choice.
Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, had the choice between putting his seven-year record in power to an authentic popular test, and remaining in power as figurehead for a confederacy of warlords who managed to make the Taliban look attractive when earlier they fought bitterly for power.
For the U.S., which is currently in the throes of deep internal turmoil over health care, a burgeoning deficit and a seemingly jobless economic recovery, the choice was between nearly doubling its troop presence in Afghanistan just to make life more secure for the many who are already there, and accepting that its civilisational mission, doomed from the moment it was launched, needed serious rethink.
For the U.N. and other multilateral agencies, the challenge was to ensure that the institutions built up with significant aid inputs, would meet the test of free and fair elections and establish their credibility with the larger Afghan public.
Every actor’s choice was contingent on the others’. And as things have turned out, all have seemingly opted for what ultimately would do them least credit.
As a Pashtun from a powerful southern tribe, Karzai clearly believed he had a presumptive right to the presidency, especially after he tied up alliances with powerful warlords from two of the country’s other major ethnic groups – the Tajiks and the Hazaras. The U.S. was willing to see this ambition through to fruition, but eager that the process was seen as fair, so that the serious questions of legitimacy that bedevilled Karzai’s first term would be dispelled. The international community likewise wanted the election to be recognised within Afghanistan and its near and far neighbourhood, as a milestone in the country’s rapid evolution out of external tutelage.
Karzai was convinced that he merited victory in the first round of elections against a diverse slate of nearly forty candidates, among whom Abdullah Abdullah, a former associate of the slain Northern Alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Massood, was the most prominent. The U.N. which has a high profile in Afghanistan’s internal matters and provides financial and technical assistance across a range of activities, believed that a hands-off approach which placed the onus entirely on Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), would enhance perceptions about the legitimacy of the elections. And the U.S. was preoccupied with internal debates about the growing costs and consequences of military engagement, and unable to see political subtleties, such as the different consequences that could emerge from the means employed to secure Karzai a second term.
Following nation-wide polling on August 20 and conflicting claims of victory from the main candidates, the trend as votes were counted seemed in Karzai’s favour. By late-September, Karzai was ready to proclaim himself president for a renewed term. Public scepticism was widespread and the temptations of silence strong. The deputy head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, the U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, broke the silence, only to be swiftly dismissed for his effrontery. But as the political paralysis deepened, the U.N. saw the wisdom of not acceding unconditionally to the Karzai game-plan.
Within three weeks of Galbraith’s ouster, Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) – a body sponsored by the U.N. – went public with its estimate that upto 15 percent of the ballots cast nationwide, could have been fraudulent. Taking these into account, Karzai was seen to fall short of the 50 percent vote share needed for an outright first-round victory.
There was brief but spirited resistance, including the public questioning of the ECC’s credentials and the resignation of a Karzai loyalist from the body. But Karzai seemingly saw the writing on the wall when the U.S. after its initial deference, leaned hard on him to go in for a runoff election against Abdullah. The demand was conceded with obvious reluctance, but without any assurance that the conditions that vitiated the first round would be remedied. Meeting with a firm rejection of his demand for a reconstitution of the IEC, consisting almost entirely of Karzai appointees, Abdullah withdrew from the contest. Karzai gained a tainted victory and the U.S. saw little amiss in welcoming the outcome as one that was fully in consonance with Afghanistan’s national law.
Meanwhile, the debate in the U.S. on future military engagement in Afghanistan has acquired ugly partisan overtones. Shortly after the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, submitted a situation report to President Barack Obama, right-wing partisans in the U.S. media blazoned his recommendation that troop presence in the country be significantly increased. The military establishment had obviously planned a strategic media leak, which the civilian head of the U.S. Defence Department was swift to reprimand. But the political leadership could seemingly do nothing to stem the rising tide of adverse media comment.
Obama has affected an air of detached deliberation, but he will soon have to reckon with the noisy Republican right-wing -- still loath to admit the magnitude of its misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. He will need to respond to the military assessment, though he seems more inclined to heed his domestic political constituency, which opposes further escalation.
The U.S. President meanwhile, rescinded an 18-year ban imposed on media coverage of the funeral rites for military personnel killed in overseas operations and flew early one morning, while most of his country slept, to an airbase to salute the coffins of 18 soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The humbling experience, he said, would have a bearing on his decision on the future course of the U.S.’s overseas military operations.
October 2009, which was supposed to mark Karzai’s triumphal return to power, has turned out to be a stormy and contentious month. It has also, in terms of military casualties, been the worst month for the U.S. since it began its offensive in Afghanistan eight years ago. After going in with disinterested professions of bringing civilisation to a country under the sway of religious bigots, the U.S. today is increasingly, hostage to the whims of numerous Afghan warlords. Without their indulgence, U.S. military personnel deployed in Afghanistan, whatever their number, would just be so many sitting ducks.