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Karzai's Victory And The Opportunities Lost In Afghanistan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (center) with his vice presidents, Karim Khalili (right) and Mohammad Qasim Fahim at a press conference in Kabul on November 3.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (center) with his vice presidents, Karim Khalili (right) and Mohammad Qasim Fahim at a press conference in Kabul on November 3.
Scarcely an hour after the Afghan Independent Election Commission announced that President Hamid Karzai had won a second term in office by default, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a statement congratulating him and praising the fraud-marred election as "historic."

The first round of the electoral process was, indeed, historically unprecedented, with close to one-third of the votes cast for Karzai judged fraudulent and thrown out, leaving him with only 48 percent of the total ballots. While his election team claims that he cannot be held responsible for the actions of overzealous supporters, Afghan election law states that candidates must be held responsible for acts of fraud committed in their favor.

The international community chose to overlook the overwhelmingly evident criminality of that fraud, and pressured Mr. Karzai into accepting a stage-managed runoff. In Kabul's diplomatic circles, the importance of "maintaining stability" and "avoiding a political vacuum" were repeatedly cited as reasons for turning a blind eye to the severe procedural violations.

On November 1, Karzai's chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, wearing a somber suit with an electric green tie (perhaps a visual allusion to this summer's postelection Green Revolution in neighboring Iran), announced his withdrawal from the second-round runoff.

If Abdullah's last-minute withdrawal from the race did not change the election outcome, at the very least it dealt a severe blow to Karzai's legitimacy.

Abdullah had presented a list of demands aimed at making the scheduled runoff somewhat more "fair and free." When Karzai refused to meet these demands, Abdullah was left with no option but to withdraw. The outcome of a one-man runoff could never have been deemed legitimate, nor could the tens of millions of dollars spent by the international community on such a farce be justified.


One day before the Election Commission's confirmation of Karzai's second term, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that one-man elections have happened before in other parts of the world, including the United States, and that Abdullah's withdrawal would not undermine the electoral process in Afghanistan.

That statement served only to reinforce a growing conviction among the beleaguered, war-fatigued people of Afghanistan that their will is, and has always been, irrelevant to the grand scheme of things.

"Democracy?" bitterly smirked a Kabul taxi driver on one of the private Afghan television channels. "That is an American euphemism for occupation. We don't have patriotic leaders either. So, the people's hands are tied behind their backs."

Still, there were hopes that the standoff might have led to the formation of a provisional "national unity government."

According to Ahmad Wali Massoud, a former Afghan ambassador to London and a close adviser to Abdullah, the logical next move should have been to postpone the runoff until conditions had been improved, meaning until concrete guarantees were in place that would preclude further fraud.

However, Michael Griffin, author of "Reaping The Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement In Afghanistan," predicted in a televised panel discussion that the international community would ultimately come to accept a second term for Karzai as a "necessary evil."

What has transpired begs a key question. In a situation where popular support for the Afghan war and reconstruction aid is already dwindling in most NATO member states, can support for that "necessary evil" be maintained when the lives of NATO soldiers are at stake, and given the huge financial cost?

'Mubarak Syndrome'

On the eve of the first round of the election in August, some Afghan analysts were apprehensive about the inevitable emergence of the "Hosni Mubarak syndrome," whereby the West would feel more comfortable with the only known and tested quantity in Afghan politics, namely, Hamid Karzai, as lifetime president.

Indeed, Washington's support for Hosni Mubarak has been explained many times as going along with a "necessary evil," and for years Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel.

Among a population understandably susceptible to conspiracy theories, some Afghan analysts have even construed U.S. President Barack Obama's reference to the need for a "reliable partner" in Afghanistan as reflecting a preference for an Afghan counterpart whose domestic political legitimacy was weak, and who was therefore heavily reliant on foreign backers. This theory also posits that Abdullah has been assured of a prominent future role, so as to keep him in the game as a check vis-à-vis Karzai, while also precluding violent protests.

It is also worth noting that nowhere in the Afghan Constitution or election laws is there a provision authorizing the Election Commission to declare a winner in the event that one of the candidates boycotts the process. In the absence of such a provision, the commission's pronouncement may well be open to legal challenge.

Some Afghans even believe that these events herald the onset of another civil war. While Abdullah has repeatedly stated that he does not want his supporters to resort to violence, there are those who expect Iranian-style riots to sweep across Kabul.

'Different Signals'

In his withdrawal speech, Abdullah reiterated his demands for fundamental changes to the Afghan government, but tactfully did not touch on the possibility of a national unity government. It is now clear that Washington was either unwilling or unable to pressure Karzai into a power-sharing deal under a provisional authority scheme until the security situation, reformation of the elections commission, and the weather would permit a more free and fair election process.

Given that the option of a provisional unity government seemed to be on the table in Washington up until November 1, Massoud expressed regret that the Americans do not have a united stance on the policy they should adopt vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

"Different officials have different ideas and they send different signals," he said.

Indeed, if one is to diagnose the causes of the Afghan election fiasco, the Obama administration's fluctuating position is as much to blame as the survivalist approach of war-seasoned Afghan politicians.

The arrival of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Kabul on November 2, although originally scheduled in reaction to last week's attack on the UN guest house there, could have served as an opportunity for serious negotiations on a provisional unity government. Instead, Ban posed for photographers alongside the victor, thereby bestowing legitimacy on what was essentially the defeat of the Afghan people, and the end of their short-lived experiment with democratization.

Helena Malikyar is an expert on Afghan state-building; 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.