With the American Stars and Stripes displayed prominently in the background alongside the Afghan flag, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on October 20 accepted the results of the controversial presidential election that has kept the nation in limbo for two months.
Flanked by a U.S. senator and the UN special representative, and in the presence of the U.S. and French ambassadors, a beleaguered Karzai seemed intent on showing his countrymen that he had been pressured into accepting a runoff, while at the same time assuring his rivals that he had the unwavering support of the international community and is still considered a "reliable partner" by the U.S. administration.
The announcement broke the impasse that threatened to plunge Afghanistan into a political crisis. The presidential poll is now going to a second round, and the country is said to be back on the right track.
Preliminary results showed Karzai winning the election in a single round with 54.6 percent of the vote. But the process was held up by investigations into allegations of massive fraud. The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission originally called for a recount of 10 percent of polling stations where there was evidence of fraud, but a European Union observer mission claimed that more than one-third of Karzai's votes were “suspect,” a number large enough to bring his total below the "50-percent-plus-one" vote required to win. Accusations Of Vote-Rigging
Peter Galbraith was reportedly sacked from his post as deputy head of the UN mission after accusing his boss, Kai Eide, of withholding evidence of vote-rigging and of bias in Karzai's favor. Eide denied the allegations but later conceded that "ghost polling stations" had been used to produce thousands of fake votes for the incumbent.
Some opposition leaders believe that the UN’s laissez-faire attitude has undermined trust among the Afghan population in a fair process, which at this critical period has created a political vacuum that is being filled by the insurgents.
But in the end, the international community, particularly U.S. officials, were instrumental in persuading Karzai to “accept” the verdict of the Electoral Complaints Commission. Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who will be running against Karzai in the runoff, followed U.S. President Barack Obama, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and a host of other world leaders in praising the Afghan president's decision.
However, a crucial point seems to have been overlooked.
If all involved accepted that massive fraud, in various shapes and forms, was committed, and if fraud is a crime, how could the United States, the UN, and EU officials congratulate themselves for taking the Afghan elections to a second round without the slightest concern about the obvious criminality that overshadows the candidates, the institutions, and the process?
More Suspicious Than Ever
After nearly three decades of conflict and foreign interference, Afghans who had begun to see a ray of hope in a post-Taliban era are now more suspicious than ever of the motives of the international community in their homeland.
When U.S.-led coalition forces began bombing and deploying troops in Afghanistan in October 2001, Afghans welcomed them and embraced a partnership, perhaps for the first time in that nation’s history. This pact in the “war on terror” involved acceptance of foreign military forces on Afghan soil in exchange for the world’s assistance in rebuilding its infrastructure, its economy, and its state institutions and helping establish a democratic system.
Talk is rife, even among Afghans who do not support Karzai’s chief rival, that a stage-managed second round is merely a prelude to Karzai becoming president for life.
Eight years down the road, faced with an increasingly powerful insurgency on the one hand and a vastly corrupt Afghan state and political establishment on the other, NATO capitals are rethinking their objectives in Afghanistan and are seriously discussing “realistic” and “achievable” goals in that troubled land. It has been proposed that the West abandon such lofty objectives as supporting the establishment of democracy, good governance, rule of law, and human rights in Afghanistan because Afghans are “tribal,” even “ungovernable.”
Meanwhile, the average farmer and shopkeeper in Afghanistan is asking: What happened to that pact whereby we would roll out the welcome mat and you would help us turn the page on nearly three decades of misery caused by corrupt and self-serving leaders and support us in establishing the rule of law and good governance?
And any counterinsurgency expert would advise that the most important element in winning a war against insurgency is to have the local population on your side.
Most analysts now concede that only a drastic change of objectives in Afghanistan now can produce success. Restoring public confidence is paramount, and the first step should be to address the insurgency problem through a serious process of negotiation and incorporation of the insurgents into the political system. This proceeds from the assumption that the insurgency has been fueled by the exclusion of once-important elements of society from the political process.
Indeed, as the crisis in Afghanistan unfolds, there is a growing fear among Afghans that the country’s nascent democracy will devolve into a “Hosni Mubarak-style” arrangement. Talk is rife, even among Afghans who do not support Karzai’s chief rival, that a stage-managed second round is merely a prelude to Karzai becoming president for life.
'Coalition Of The Corrupt'
Off the record, some prominent Afghans concede that they only supported Karzai because they were either arm-twisted or gained personally from doing so. Few approve of the incumbent’s choices for vice-presidential running mates. Both have been accused by international organizations of gross human rights violations.
There has been considerable talk about avoiding a second round of voting through the formation of a coalition government. Interestingly, as the incumbent and his rival head for a runoff, “coalition” is now being discussed in both camps as “national participatory government,” possibly in a bid to avoid the bad reputation that the word “coalition” has in the country.
Ashraf Ghani, one of the leading candidates in the first round of the election, has categorically dismissed such a proposal as “a coalition of the corrupt.” Most Afghan analysts believe that a power-sharing arrangement between the two candidates will deepen the crisis, as it will not change the fundamentals of the problem. Karzai’s camp has repeatedly spoken against the formation of a coalition government, arguing that it would nullify the electoral and democratic processes.
One outcome of the election mess, however, seems to be signs of blurring ethnic lines. Voting patterns in the first round illustrate the emergence of grey areas. While a true sense of nationhood and common interests is yet to emerge, recent political alignments indicate that Afghans are moving away from seeing their interests and protection along ethnic and communal boundaries and are increasingly thinking of their individual interests.
As NATO capitals rethink their objectives in Afghanistan, perhaps it is time to turn away from the 19th-century colonial view of Afghans as unruly tribesmen who can only be governed by ethnic- and tribal-based stake-holding mechanisms. It is time to revisit the original 2001 pact and seek a “reliable partner” in the people of Afghanistan.Helena Malikyar is an expert on Afghan state building and Tanya Goudsouzian is a journalist who has covered Afghanistan since 2001. The views expressed in this commentary are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.