Aug 10, 2009

Afghan elections

Zafar Hilaly

The general consensus is that the Americans won’t hack it in Afghanistan longer than another two to three years. And whether they have to be evacuated by helicopter atop the American embassy in Kabul, like in Saigon, or in a phased manner, as in Iraq, win or lose, they will go. And unless he leaves with them, like Thieu of Vietnam, the man Afghans elect president in three week’s time, will be presiding over Afghanistan when they leave.

There is no great interest on the outcome of the Afghan elections in Pakistan. Most here take it for granted that President Hamid Karzai will rig himself another term. Nor is Washington holding its breadth in anticipation of the result. Whoever wins is inconsequential as Washington will be calling the shots in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

Hence, ambassador Eikenberry’s article (August 4, Washington Post) talking about the importance of the Afghan elections has a surreal ring about it. No one outside the Washington beltway buys his hype about America’s pristine plans for Afghanistan. Eight years on and not a speck of the “peace, justice, economic opportunity and regional understanding” which Eikenberry claims America seeks is visible. Such sentiments are a timely reminder of the mismatch between words and deeds that have plagued most of America’s forays abroad.

Notwithstanding the plethora of presidential candidates (41) the contest is likely to boil down to one between the incumbent Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister. This is a pity because by far the more cerebral and attractive candidate is Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister. Listening to him on CNN the other day one could not help being struck by the coherence of his views and of his vision for Afghanistan’s future. Alas, it is ethnic identity and money, not ability or vision, which will determine the outcome. Hence Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun from the largest ethnic group of Afghanistan (40 per cent) with dollops of lucre to spread around and a servile local administration at his call is the clear favourite.

To further improve his chances the wily Karzai has split the ethnic Tajik vote that his main rival Abdullah was banking on by co-opting General Fahim, Ahmed Shah Massoud’s successor as the leader of the Afghan Tajiks and a former defence minister, as his running mate. Moreover, by pandering to demands for a freehand to run their fiefdoms Karzai has won-over most of Afghanistan’s powerful warlords.

Given the public’s disenchantment with Karzai he is unlikely to get an overall majority in the first ballot. The Americans too would prefer Karzai gone. His eight years have proved disastrous, though the fault is less his than that of Washington. But Karzai fancies power, even if it is confined to the city limits of Kabul. He has outsmarted the Americans by shoring up his traditional supporters and distancing himself from the US to attract more independent voters. Not that Washington is especially worried. Karzai and Abdullah are essentially American creatures.

For Pakistanis Hamid Karzai is a known commodity. His bias against Pakistan, subdued at first, blossomed after some mentoring by the Tajiks of the Northern Alliance, who hate Pakistan as much as the Hindu extremists. This was reflected in his embrace of India. And it is mostly through the Indian prism that the India-educated Karzai now views sub-continental developments.

By replacing Pakistan’s pervasive influence in Afghanistan by that of India Karzai obtained for his country more Indian largesse ($1.5 billion) than any Afghan regime in history. To spite Musharraf for teaming up with the Taliban (and bare-facedly denying it) Karzai forged a military alliance with India which, according to some, poses a significant threat to Pakistan’s security. We are in danger, our military pundits warn, of being outflanked. Provoked further, by Musharraf’s policy of turning a blind eye to the safe haven Mullah Omar and his ilk enjoyed in the tribal areas, Karzai is accused of conniving with India to destabilise Balochistan and fund elements within the Pakistani Taliban to attack our forces.

Clever, cunning, corrupt, and with an eye on the main chance, Hamid Karzai is nevertheless a weak leader, a reed of a man possessing, in the words of an American president, “the backbone of a chocolate eclair.” (Which is why, presumably, he was picked by Washington to act as their surrogate in Afghanistan). He is also said to be vacillating and unpredictable, and his hand on the tiller is shaky. Because he is viewed as a failure the Taliban consider him a perfect opponent. His victory in the forthcoming elections could act as a fillip to their cause by demonstrating that nothing good can, or will, emerge from a Kabul ruled by Karzai.

Alas, Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister and a one-time Ahmed Shah Massoud adviser, harbours, if anything, an even greater antipathy for Pakistan than Karzai. His hatred stems from the days when Hekmatyar, our favourite mujahidin commander, was at daggers drawn with Massoud, Pakistan shunned Massoud and supported Hekmatyar because we felt that the Pashtun Hekmatyar would be a better and more pliable tool. We were wrong, but then we often are. Indeed, the destruction wrought by Hekmatyar on Kabul in his vain attempt to oust Massoud from the capital was far greater than all of the damage Kabul endured during the entire period of Soviet occupation or subsequently.

Though half-Pashtun himself, Abdullah has played a leading role in hogging power for the Tajiks, at the cost of the Pashtuns. Tajiks who at best comprise 25 per cent of the Afghan population have as much as 40 per cent of soldiers, 56 per cent of officers and 53 per cent of NCOs in the Afghan army and dominate the Shura-e-Nazar. If Abdullah were to prevail over Karzai in the elections then to many of Pakistan’s Pashtuns the Taliban would appear as the lesser evil. Notwithstanding his new-found desire for friendship with Pakistan his victory would offer Pakistan nothing but a poisoned chalice.

Confronted by the existential threat posed by the Taliban/Al Qaida combine, Pakistan and Afghanistan are doomed to cooperate. They need to engage purposely and wholeheartedly because if they remain at odds with each other, or work at cross-purposes, both will suffer. Something approaching friendship must be forged. The animus and suspicion that has traditionally existed won’t do.

In this regard, the fractionally better prospect that Hamid Karzai offers, along with the premise that the “Devil you know is better than the devil you do not” suggests that Islamabad too may end up rooting for Karzai, come the third week of August. Mr Zardari, it seems, and not his critics, was right in befriending Karzai. In fact, he appears prescient.

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