U.S. goofs up the Afghan election

The West’s claim that there should be a runoff and that Hamid Karzai’s shortfall by 0.3 per cent votes in the first round made him "illegitimate" in the eyes of the Afghan people turned out to be a first-rate farce.

Updated - November 17, 2021 06:40 am IST

Published - November 15, 2009 11:21 pm IST

An Afghan police officer carries a banner of President Hamid Karzai, after his victory in the presidential election, in Herat, Afghanistan. Photo: AP

An Afghan police officer carries a banner of President Hamid Karzai, after his victory in the presidential election, in Herat, Afghanistan. Photo: AP

The victory of Hamid Karzai in the Afghan presidential election is a watershed event. Mr. Karzai showed the door to western sponsors who approached him for a last-minute “deal” to scrap the runoff by having his opponent Abdullah Abdullah, former Foreign Minister, accommodated in some position in the future administration. Mr. Karzai refused to deal and instead chose to call the West’s bluff, which left the latter with no option but to back off. Mr. Abdullah too abdicated from the political scene, making the runoff redundant. In short, Mr. Karzai chose to “Afghanise” his power base, ignoring western protestations. He calculated that he would continue to enjoy strong support from within the major non-Pashtun groups as well so long as his partnership with Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili, Ismail Khan, Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Mohaqiq remained intact.

No doubt, a new power alignment is taking shape. Afghan-style politics is resuming after very many years. At the centre stage of the political theatre stands Mr. Karzai. He has turned the table squarely on the western powers. But he will not easily forget the sustained attempts over the past year and more to ridicule him and pull him down. There has been some attrition. The attacks on him and his family members have been on very personal terms at times. Afghans are not used to western-style character assassination in the name of democracy.

The latest broadside in the New York Times portraying his brother Wali Karzai as a drug trafficker and CIA agent has taken matters to a point of no return. The American officials who spoke out of turn have done colossal damage to the U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Washington must seriously note that the response to the New York Times report has come from none other than the Afghan Minister of Counter Narcotics, General Khodaidad Khodaidad. The Minister has brought on to public debate Afghanistan’s best-kept secret: the role of foreign troops in drug-trafficking.

Gen. Khodaidad is a highly trained professional with acute political instincts, who knows what he is talking about. Indians knew him, so did Russians. He passed out of the prestigious Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun and was a product of the famous Fronze Military Academy in Moscow. He had a proven record in the communist regime in Kabul as a highly decorated general; he led the crack paratrooper brigades in the war in the early 1980s and served as army commander in the Kunduz-Takhar frontline facing the legendary “Lion of Panjshir,” Ahmed Shah Massoud. Britain, where he lived in exile for a decade, knows him too.

Therefore, when Gen. Khodaidad said early this month that the NATO contingents from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada are “taxing” the production of opium in the regions under their control, he actually carried a stern warning on behalf of Mr. Karzai. It is a direct message: don’t throw stones while sitting in a glass cage. The western powers have systematically, through countless acts of plain idiocy, paying no heed to the culture and traditions of the Afghan people, brought things to this sorry, deplorable pass. Now onward, they will have to give up the doublespeak regarding “warlords” and “warlordism” and learn to perform the way Mr. Karzai wants or at least in consultation with him. The point is, he is staying in power for a second term on his own steam, defying the wishes and frustrating the designs of the western powers.

The U.S. should quickly move to bury the rift and do some cool introspection. Perilous times lie ahead. The Barack Obama presidency is on the firing line. The western powers cannot afford any more goof-ups. In institutional terms, the White House and the U.S. State Department have an uphill task in rebuilding ties with Mr. Karzai. From all accounts, the equations between President Obama and Mr. Karzai remain very poor. Apparently, they don’t even use satellite phones to talk. This should never have happened between two gifted politicians. Equally, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke has become persona non grata in Kabul. John Kerry, the powerful chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who did the famous arms-twisting act on Mr. Karzai two weeks ago has also become a burnt-out case. Afghanistan is living up to its reputation as the graveyard of foreigners.

On balance, Mr. Obama’s dependence on the Pentagon has increased. U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates kept his nails clean. Enormously experienced in the business of statecraft and bureaucratic dogfight alike, he could make out from 10,000 miles away that he should steer clear of the sordid skirmishes in the Hindu Kush that Washington was pitting against the obstinate Afghan leader. He knew such things could only end up messily and, more important, there would be a critical need for Mr. Obama to still deal with Mr. Karzai in the aftermath of the foul-up.

The tumultuous phase of the past few months, centred around the Afghan presidential election, will peter off sooner than most people in the West might have thought. Actually, too much was made — quite needlessly — of the “legitimacy” factor of the Afghan election. Legitimacy was never an issue insofar as the Afghan people’s real concerns at this juncture lie elsewhere — peace and security, livelihood and predictability in day-to-day life. As for the international community, that is, the non-western world, it was quite used to dealing with Mr. Karzai and it never mixed that up with the state of democracy in Afghanistan. The broad perception in the world community was that a few motivated western capitals were deliberately making an issue of the “legitimacy” of the election to “soften up” Mr. Karzai politically and if he still resisted, to get rid of him from power. Thus the world community mutely watched when the West began chanting in unison that there should be a runoff and that Mr. Karzai’s shortfall by 0.3 per cent votes in the first round made him “illegitimate” in the eyes of the Afghan people. It has turned out to be a first-rate farce.

Mr. Abdullah’s abdication from the political arena is not going to set the Kabul River on fire. There isn’t going to be any war between the Pashtuns and Tajiks, either. In overall terms, Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries (except Pakistan perhaps, to an extent) will find Mr. Karzai’s new team easy to work with. The new set-up will include personalities who are familiar figures to key regional capitals such as Moscow, Tehran, Tashkent and Dushanbe. The emergence of such a pan-Afghan team in Kabul will be reassuring for these regional capitals. Arguably, with a regime shaping up in Kabul that is high on its “Afghan-ness,” the U.S. will also come under greater pressure to evolve a consensus approach to the war strategy and the search for a settlement.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov summed up the paradigm when he said last week: “The Bush administration sinned by a lopsided interpretation of collective efforts … Obama has announced a different philosophy — that of collective action, which calls for joint analysis, decision-making and implementation … So far, inertia lingers at the implementers’ level in the U.S. who still follow the well-trodden track, trying to decide anything and everything beforehand for others. But as we felt during the contacts, President Obama has an absolutely clear understanding that it is necessary to enlist intellectual resources from all the states that can contribute to devising a strategy.”

The big question, however, is how the Taliban will view the Afghan political developments. A complex picture is emerging. The U.S. is inching closer to discussing a modus vivendi with the Taliban, while Mr. Karzai has partners who have dealings with the Taliban. (Ironically, Mr. Wali Karzai is one such skilled politician who is deeply immersed in the Taliban folklore.) It will not be surprising if a political accommodation is reached with the powerful Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It is foolhardy to assess that old war horses of the Northern Alliance have a closed mind on the Taliban — or, for that matter, on Pakistan. Simply put, that is not how the Afghan political culture works. What the outside world — including neighbouring capitals like New Delhi — often fails to realise is that the battle lines are never really clear-cut in the Hindu Kush. In fact, they never were. This is only to be expected in a civil war that is essentially rooted in a fratricidal strife.

If Mr. Hekmatyar walks over, a virtual polarisation of the Mujahideen will have taken place. We will then find ourselves in a priori history, lodged somewhere in the early 1990s after the famous U.N. diplomat Diego Cordovez and the Red Army had departed from the Hindu Kush and before the Taliban poured out of the Pakistani madrasas to fill in the power vacuum. If Mr. Hekmatyar chooses politics to war, a major hurdle will also have been crossed in isolating the hardline elements within the Taliban — the so-called Quetta shura and the Haqqani network.

( The writer is a former diplomat.)

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