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Selling Afghans short

The ballot boxes were full, but the election was empty of meaning.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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A new NATO operation is underway in Afghanistan: Operation Get the Vote Out.

Cries of fraud in Kabul have been drowned out by the sound of celebration in Washington. All 15 candidates running against president Hamid Karzai have complained that the indelible ink used to mark voters’ thumbs wasn’t so indelible after all – and claim that some people have been voting 10 to 15 times (1). They are threatening to boycott the ballot.

But Washington wasn’t going to let the wrong kind of ink spoil its big day. In his address on Saturday, President George W Bush didn’t mention the fact that all bar one of the candidates were threatening to drop out. ‘This is an appropriate day for America to remember and thank the men and women of our armed forces who liberated Afghanistan’, he said (2). ‘This was an extraordinary day for the Afghan people’, judged Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, ‘and this election is going to be judged legitimate. I’m just certain of it’ (3).

Meanwhile, the ambassador for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Robert Barry, told the opposition to stop being so selfish. ‘The candidates’ demand to nullify the election is unjustified and would not do service to the people of Afghanistan who came out yesterday, at great personal risk, to vote.’ (4)

There appears to be little interest in how many times Afghans vote, or what they vote for. All that matters are crosses on ballot papers. So long as more than 50 per cent of these crosses are for Karzai, avoiding the cost and controversy of a second round, it’s enough to be decreed ‘free and fair’.

That Afghans queued up to cast their ballots in such numbers was testimony to their desire to have a say in running their country. Unfortunately the elections are little more than a stage-show for international interests, keen for an Afghan good news story to take the edge off Iraqi bad news. Few think that the timing is a coincidence. Afghan presidential candidate Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai said: ‘We are sacrificing our elections for the November elections in America – otherwise there is no reason to have our election in such a hurry.’ (5)

It’s normal to have central state institutions before you hold elections. This isn’t the case in Afghanistan. Outside the confines of Kabul, the country is in the hands of private militias, many run by former Mujahideen commanders. ‘Karzai is able to appoint governors and police chiefs in some of the stable areas in the north’, says Mark Sedra, research associate at the Bonn International Centre for Conversion. ‘But if a local commander decides to go his own way, he can – and the government is forced to negotiate.’

The Afghan national army has some 13,700 fighters, but has long suffered from high desertion rates. Karzai recently used a couple of battalions when conflict flared between rival commanders in the western province of Herat, but this show of force had to be backed up by US planes flying overhead. The Afghan national army is a minnow alongside the 85,000 armed fighters in the ranks of regional warlords (6).

Afghan politicians’ official titles – defence minister, foreign minister, education minister – are largely cosmetic. People get their power, not from their political views or skills, but from the strength of their militias. ‘The reason why somebody is defence minister is not because he is a good political player – it’s because his militia occupied Kabul’, says Chris Freeman, a commentator on Afghanistan. Many of the presidential candidates command private armies. Karzai’s main rival, the Tajik leader Yunus Qanooni, heads 5,000 men based in Kabul. Uzbek leader General Rashid Dostum wields ex-Soviet tanks and guns over the provinces of the north (7).

The security situation meant that election campaigning has been virtually non-existent. Karzai barely stepped outside Kabul – one attempt was halted after a rocket attack on his helicopter. On 4 October, it was reported that that only two of the presidential candidates turned up for a pre-election debate organised by the Afghanistan Foundation for Culture and Civil Society, and they spoke to an audience of fewer than 100 people (8).

Meanwhile, state coffers remain empty. The informal economy makes up some 90 per cent of trade, and drugs production continues to grow. Opium is thought to be worth some $2.3billion a year, one third of the economy.

Afghans clearly want self-determination, and the chance to decide how their country is run. But rather than being the initiative of the Afghan people, run by Afghan institutions, the elections are stage-managed from outside. International representatives have been working behind the scenes to ensure the right result. They tried to seal a deal between Karzai and Qanooni, so that Qanooni would step down in exchange for promised ministerial slots (9). Taking out Karzai’s main rival would have guaranteed him victory.

Now the matchmakers are attempting to get candidates to drop their protests about fraud. The US ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and others have reportedly been working the backrooms. One candidate reported: ‘[Qanooni] and [Hazara chieftain Mohammad] Mohaqiq have shown willingness to drop the boycott demand after meetings with Khalilzad…. Khalilzad urged them to do so in return for accommodating them somehow in the future government.’ (10)

This was perhaps exactly what the opposition candidates were fishing for. Their threats to rain on the election parade seem geared to win concessions through international mediators. ‘The protests are an attempt to gain some leverage against the government. It’s a ploy to cement their position in the next administration’, says Mark Sedra.

US forces took out the Taliban regime without having any idea of what to replace it with. The war was never anything to do with Afghans or the future of Afghanistan – plans for a new administration and elections have been cobbled together as an afterthought. But international forces won’t leave and allow Afghans to govern themselves. They have built phantom state institutions, with all the correct titles – president, defence minister, cabinet – but none of the political weight.

By staging an election, Western authorities are trying to send the signal that Afghanistan is becoming a viable nation state, that the ‘liberation’ has been a success. Elections are what functioning democratic states do. The Afghan state, though, barely touches political life on the ground, which is resolved by quite different mechanisms. It takes more than crosses on bits of paper to create a legitimate regime.

Occasionally Western officials criticise Karzai for not making their myth of an Afghan nation state into a reality. In early July 2004, the European Union (EU) hinted that it would withhold aid from Afghanistan if Karzai didn’t stop doing deals with warlords (11). Meanwhile, Karzai was criticised for using a new road-building project to promote his campaign. These complaints are a bit rich. After all, it was the 2001 Bonn Agreement that sealed the role of the warlords in government. And if Karzai can’t use a road-building project to show how Afghanistan is getting better, what can he use?

Elections are also seen as a kind of therapeutic palliative, which will sooth unrest. The aim is less to give Afghan people a say, than to make them feel that they are having a say. This makes the Afghan elections a kind of $200million social inclusion project, to pacify people and stop them from causing trouble.

Elections are a pretty dowdy affair in the West, with more emphasis on process rather than politics. The Afghan elections have been like a caricature of this emptiness. There has been no political content, no debate about issues or policies. It’s unclear what the candidates stand for, or how they differ in terms of political aims. The focus is all on getting bums on seats, crosses on ballot papers. That’s hardly free or fair.

Read on:

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(1) Boycott threatens Afghanistan’s foray into democracy, Christian Science Monitor, 12 October 2004

(2) Bush takes credit for Afghan election, AP, 9 October 2004

(3) http://www.guardian.co.uk/uslatest/story/0,1282,-4541696,00.html, AP, 10 October 2004

(4) Observers approve Afghan election, BBC News, 10 October 2004

(5) Afghans complain of hastily set elections, Dawn, 3 August 2004

(6) New Afghan Army asserts itself, CS Monitor, 23 August 2004

(7) Afghan polls: Ramazan & other factors, Dawn, 28 August 2004

(8) Afghan Presidential Debate Draws Two Candidates, Afghanistan.com

(9) ‘Afghan election race goes into top gear’, Daily Telegraph, 6 October 2004

(10) Boycott of Afghan election totters after inquiry pledge, Independent, 12 October 2004

(11) Afghanistan: democracy before peace?, Mark Sedra, September 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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