August 17, 2009

The Karzai inevitability

Alia Allana
Posted: Saturday , Aug 15, 2009 at 0058 hrs

There is something oddly conspicuous about elections during wartime. There's the obvious difficulty, ensuring voter safety; and whether the ruling party will be able to ensure smooth governance after the conflict ends or whether the elections themselves can aid in state-building, curtailing the length of the conflict itself.

Look cursorily at the polls just a month ago and Karzai's victory would have seemed inevitable. He enjoyed more airtime and coverage than his rivals: Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who prefers to be known as just Abdullah, a former challenger to the presidency and now a force to be reckoned with; and Ashraf Ghani, the soft-spoken World Bank type who traded in his Zegna suit for a cool fez and has Bill Clinton's campaign manager running his campaign. But Karzai has the obvious power of incumbency and is an ethnic Pashtun who has created a consortium of crafty alliances with dubious warlords. But the question is being asked in this campaign: are these alliances detrimental to the people of Afghanistan?

Simply put, no. Obviously allowing armed warlords to conduct a thriving drug trade is problematic but Karzai has managed a unity that seemed impossible five years ago. Take the simple case of warlord Rashid Dostum. He ran in the first elections, he commands a five thousand-man army, possesses the capacity to shake up the ethnic Uzbek vote — but now he sides with Karzai. That's clearly not enough though: Karzai needs to indicate that he is willing to curtail the warlords' mounting excesses, or the allegation that he has ceded de facto power to a bunch of no-good thugs will gain strength.

That, couched as concern about "high levels of corruption" is the main criticism heard of Karzai. But what would his opponents do in order to prevent warlords from running amuck? Disband them? How to do that without breeding more chaos?

His main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, is a former protégé of Ahmad Shah Mahsoud, but he attacks Karzai's warlord-friendly policy frequently. Similarly, Ashraf Ghani, the candidate who can cut into Karzai's Pashtun votes, talks of economic development and bureaucratic change. But what would Abdullah and Ghani do? Disband the alliance? Uproot the existing political infrastructure?

Within the race to the presidency lies the greater issue of the war. The extravagant exercise in liberal intervention that the Afghan war has become means that other democracies have been dragged in, their own interests playing a role in both the war and the elections. International forces in Afghanistan have over the past year attempted to distance themselves from Karzai — he was either too soft, disconnected or just not good enough. Then the US's new Af-Pak policy came into play. Under this policy, as in orthodox counterinsurgency theory, the host government lies at the heart of success and failure. So, suddenly, Karzai was back in favour. Why? In insurgencies one factor is of crucial importance, be it during combat or construction: momentum. Karzai may have lost his speed but he has created an alliance, which if pushed in the right direction may deliver results.

Current discourse and strategy suggest a war to secure merely the urban centres, leaving the countryside prone to attacks. If so, it will be through the warlords and their militias that the average Afghani will receive security. These militias are currently protecting the polling stations; only through reforming them much-needed police force and army will be built. Without cooperation between ethnic Afghan forces conflict resolution is impossible in a highly egalitarian society such as Afghanistan's.

Fixing Afghanistan has always been viewed dubiously. As Lord Curzon said, "[Not] all our present and recent schemes will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steamroller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace." This moment in time is a unique opportunity to unite the country through universal franchise — no matter how limited — and to stop the conflict from getting further entrenched.

Abdullah and Ghani have both given the elections a new twist. Look at Karzai's latest gestures to his competitors. He proposes that Abdullah and Ghani join his coalition, bring all the forces together. This might well not happen. But it does mean that Karzai is facing real competitive heat and will think hard about his policies. (And should a national unity government actually happen, it could usher in much-needed reform with renewed energy.)

The Pashtuns' legendary ethnographer, Sir Olaf Caroe, once pointed out that "unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they're over." The outcome of these elections will determine not simply the course of the much-talked-about war but also the sort of future that its end implies.

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