Afghanistan’s second “democratic” election is scheduled to take place tomorrow (20 August, 2009). It’s largely a sham, however, when you consider that the elected government will have little genuine jurisdiction outside the capital of Kabul. Out in the provinces – the vast majority of the country in other words – the rule of the Taliban still holds sway. Within the narrow confines of the capital, the government will have little room to institute any kind of meaningful reform. Afghanistan has long since become a bloody battleground, contested between the US led Coalition forces and the Taliban insurgency, with the Kabul based government shunted off to the side in a position of powerless irrelevance. The Afghan government has become little more than a front for wholesale corruption, while various former Warlords, gangsters and other bandits pick over the bones of the ravaged nation.
Already, the reports of widespread fraud are flooding in, with voting registration cards freely available for purchase on Afghan streets, and incumbent US backed President Hamid Kharzai’s ex-Warlord henchmen feared likely to use muscle at the ballot boxes. Some 15.6 million voter registrations have been lodged, but how much of that figure consists of legitimate registrations remains unclear. Whatever the outcome of this election (and Kharzai winning another term looks by far the most likely scenario) Iran style accusations of election fraud and potentially violent public protest appears quite possible.
But who are the main political players in Afghanistan right now? Let’s examine the prime election candidates, along with the other factions likely to wield an influence on Afghanistan’s future administration.
Hamid Karzai – Afghanistan’s first democratically elected President has pretty much always been the White House’s boy. With his charisma, eloquent oratory and sophisticated veneer, Karzai was seen as the ideal bridge between the West and Afghanistan’s population. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t worked out that way. Karzai rose to power on the back of promises to eradicate terrorism, poverty, corruption and the drug trade. Under his watch, all of these problems have dramatically increased in scale.
Much of Karzai’s authority is being undermined by his younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai’s apparent involvement in Afghanistan’s opium trade, which is once again flourishing like nobodies’ business under the Karzai Presidency. It’s unknown whether Karzai is profiting from this himself, or merely unwilling to do anything about the situation.
Karzai is also turning increasingly to the support of former Afghan Warlords in a bid to shore up his crumbling base of support. Mohammed Fahim, who killed numerous civilians during the Afghan civil war, will act as Karzai’s running mate. Rashid Dostum, the former Uzbek warlord with a penchant for treacherously shifting allegiances between various factions in return for money, will act to enforce Karzai’s support among Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbek population. So the same guys who were torturing the Afghan population in the fall out from the Soviet invasion will now be rewarded with prominent and influential positions in the Afghan government under Karzai.
According to the pre-election polls, a Karzai re-election appears to be the most likely outcome. That would suit the US government and it would suit the Afghan strongmen who are allied with Karzai. But it’s difficult to see any benefit for the impoverished Afghan population, who are still suffering from all of the same old problems they’ve been suffering from for decades, whether under the Taliban or any other form of government.
Opposition Candidates – Some 41 candidates have put themselves forward to contest Karzai for the presidency, although only four of them have managed to garner any significant support base. Former member of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance transitional government, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, is running Karzai closest in the polls. He’s actually a similar figure to Karzai in some respects, in that he’s a skilled orator, fluent in English and seen as a possible bridge between Afghanistan and the West. He’s a presentable front man in other words. He’s taken his cues from Barack Obama by campaigning on a “fresh start” ticket, promising most of the same stuff that Karzai promised before the last elections. Abdullah’s support appears to be based mostly on the fact that he hasn’t become President yet and therefore hasn’t had the chance to fuck things up as badly as Karzai has.
Ashraf Ghani is currently running third in the polls. He acted as Afghanistan’s interim Finance Minister in the wake of the Coalition invasion, from 2002 – 2004. Ghani is running on a campaign of job creation and economic reform. He does appear to be a skilled and knowledgeable technocrat. However, it’s difficult to see what kind of reform Ghani will be able to establish in the Afghan provinces that need it the most, against a backdrop of Taliban influence and chronic violence.
Perhaps the most interesting candidate is the plain speaking Ramazon Bashardost. Something of an outside bet, Bashardost has so far disdained the cynical tactics of the other major candidates, such as handing out free meals at political rallies and offering bribes in return for political support. He’s disavowed any cooperation with Afghanistan’s former Warlords. If elected, he’s promised to bring them to justice for their crimes. He recognises that the Coalition involvement in Afghanistan is motivated out of cynical self interest, but he’s also opposed to the Taliban. He has a proven track record of human rights activism. Sadly, as Bashardost is opposed to all of the malevolent influences in Afghanistan right now, he’s starved of any really influential backers. Even if he managed an upset win in the election, it’s unlikely he would be able to garner the kind of support he needs to act on his promises. In Afghanistan’s perennially treacherous political climate, it’s still muscle that dictates the order of the day.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – Often erroneously lumped in with the Taliban, Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami are in fact a distinct, rival organisation. Hekmatyar has been involved in militant Islamic activism and various forms of international mischief for the best part of three decades now. He’s like an Islamic Terminator. Every time it looks like he’s been put out of commission, he comes clawing back to life to make trouble again.
For a brief period between 1993 and 1994 during the Afghan civil war, Hekmatyar actually had control of Afghanistan. He’ll chiefly be remembered for launching rocket attacks against his own citizens in Kabul, blaming them for collaboration with the Soviets. He was deposed by the Taliban and spent years in exile in Pakistan and Iran, but he got too hot to handle even for the Iranians and was expelled back to Afghanistan. Hekmatyar has been on a US hit list for years, supposedly for links to Al Qaeda, although it was actually US funding during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the eighties that first put Hekmatyar on the map. The US tried to take him out with a CIA launched Hellfire missile strike in Afghanistan in 2002, but somehow he managed to survive.
Hekmatyar has now regrouped and got another band of militants together, and they’re striking Coalition targets in Afghanistan’s northern provinces. It goes without saying that Hekmatyar is utterly opposed to the Kabul elections and wants all foreign military forces to withdraw from Afghanistan “without conditions”. Hekmatyar is a savvy, ultra experienced insurgency commander who has survived overwhelming adversity. He will be impossible to ignore in any consideration of Afghanistan’s future prospects.
The Taliban – They have no participation in the election process, of course, but the Taliban have wasted no time in decrying the general phoniness of the Afghan elections. And they’d be right, in this instance. The Taliban are still the only genuinely recognised authority in much of Afghanistan, and have vowed to do anything within their means to disrupt the election process.
The Taliban is ultimately unconcerned with the election outcome. Whoever the victor, they will go about their business much as before. When it comes down to brass tacks, the Taliban are still the most influential faction in Afghanistan. No number of staged elections in Kabul will changed that fact. And they are in this for the long haul. They understand well enough that eventually, the US is going to have to pull out of Afghanistan, and when they do, the Taliban will be waiting to seize power in the fall out.
A very likely future scenario is that the Taliban are going to be involved in a three way civil war with Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami and a Warlord backed Kabul central government for control of Afghanistan. When the US pull out, whether it’s five years from now or twenty, they will leave a bloody mess behind them. Exactly the kind of scenario that led to the Taliban seizing power in the fallout from the Soviet invasion.
What the Afghan elections ultimately boil down to is the attempt to steal votes for a corruptible front man, who will then be powerless to enact significant change, in a government structure that is ultimately doomed. Trying to pretend that the elections represent any kind of meaningful progress for Afghanistan is either hopelessly optimistic or totally dishonest. Even assuming that Coalition forces will remain in Afghanistan long enough to neutralise the Taliban and other militant groups (at a horrendously destructive cost to Afghanistan’s civilian population) the best that can come from that scenario would be an pseudo-democratic government backed by the muscle of the former Afghan Warlords. That would not represent any worthwhile improvement in the condition of the general Afghan population, which continues to suffer horribly under a perpetual state of warfare. And this is what US, British and Australian troops are dying for at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars to the US depleted US economy? Is this the best we can do? Better not to get involved at all.