The Great American Arm-Twist in Afghanistan


New Member
Feb 16, 2009
Published: October 24, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan — By the looks of it, the ceremony that unfolded last week inside the Presidential Palace here was marking a joyous, even triumphant, occasion.

President Hamid Karzai, flanked by Senator John Kerry and an array of Western ambassadors, had just announced that he would accept the revised vote totals showing that he had not won re-election after all. The president’s decision meant the Afghan election would go to a second round, one that Mr. Karzai could conceivably lose.

“President Karzai has shown great leadership by his actions today,” Mr. Kerry told the Afghan and Western reporters called to witness the announcement. “Today he showed statesmanship.”

A few minutes later, Mr. Karzai, Mr. Kerry and the diplomats filed off the stage, and election workers around the country began preparing new sheaves of ballots.

In Afghanistan, you take your victories where you can get them, even if, as was the case in Kabul last week, victory amounts to little more than a catastrophe averted.

Mr. Karzai, after all, only agreed to abide by the laws of his own country. A United Nations-backed panel had nullified nearly a million ballots counted in Mr. Karzai’s favor — a third of his total — following an election on Aug. 20 that was marred by epic levels of fraud and vote stealing.

Mr. Karzai had vigorously resisted the panel’s findings, and seriously considered overriding them and declaring himself the winner. It was only Senator Kerry’s relentless efforts, and a round-the-clock lobbying press by American and European leaders, that staved off political disaster.

And that, ultimately, was the underlying message in the ceremony announcing Mr. Karzai’s concession last week: Mr. Karzai may have agreed to follow the law — he may have agreed to act in a democratic way — but he did so only after representatives of the United States, the United Nations and the largest European countries all but pushed him onto the dais to do it.

Eight years after the American-led coalition pushed the Taliban from Kabul, democracy in Afghanistan is still a very fragile thing. So fragile, indeed, that the deadlock last week seemed to raise fundamental questions about the wisdom and the direction of the American-led project here.

The political deadlock — precipitated first by the fraud and then by Mr. Karzai’s refusal to recognize it — unfolded just as President Obama was debating whether to grant a request by his chief field commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to dispatch as many as 40,000 addition troops. Those new soldiers and marines would join the 65,000 Americans, and the roughly 35,000 Europeans, already here.

In his report to the president, General McChrystal warned that the Western-backed project in Afghanistan could fall without a fresh infusion of men and material. But the astonishing level of fraud perpetrated on Mr. Karzai’s behalf, coupled with his near-refusal to accept the election results, might reasonably be expected to prompt Americans to wonder exactly what those extra troops would be fighting for. Mr. Karzai’s government is already widely seen as among the most corrupt in the world.

The Obama administration seemed to be pondering just those issues. Last week, as the political crisis in Kabul was unfolding, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of state, made clear that President Obama would hold off on General McChyrstal’s request until the political deadlock in Kabul was resolved. Mr. Emanuel suggested that Mr. Obama would not want to dispatch more Americans to fight and die for a government widely seen as illegitimate by the Afghan people.

“It would be reckless to make a decision on U.S. troop levels if, in fact, you haven’t done a thorough analysis of whether there’s an Afghan partner ready to fill that space that the U.S. troops would create,” Mr. Emanuel said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“Do you have a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need?”

Exactly what Mr. Kerry told Mr. Karzai last week is unknown, but it seemed likely that he communicated Mr. Emanuel’s — and Mr. Obama’s — sentiments. Diplomats in Kabul said afterward that the senator made it clear to Mr. Karzai that if he refused to accept the election results, domestic support for his government, in the United States and Europe, would collapse.

“It look a lot of convincing,” said a Western diplomat here, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Yet even with the immediate crisis resolved, there remains the matter of the runoff election, which will pit Mr. Karzai against his rival, the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. Despite assurances from officials with the United Nations and Western governments, there seemed little reason to expect that the fraud and vote stealing that occurred in August wouldn’t happen again. Unless something changes by Nov. 7 — the day of the runoff — most of the same officials are likely to be in place who carried out the fraud the first time around.

“Mr. Karzai got 48 percent of the vote and Abdullah got 27,” said Azizullah Ludin, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission. Despite its title, the commission is widely seen here as a tool of the president. “We will have another election, and we’ll have the same result.”

Mr. Ludin smiled broadly. “Karzai is going to win.”

Beyond the politics is the war itself. The Taliban, feeding off the widespread discontent with Mr. Karzai’s government, is now stronger than they have been at any point since 2001. American solders and marines are dying at a faster rate than ever before. The ability of the Afghan state to govern — to keep order, to build roads, to deliver basic services — is virtually nonexistent outside the capital.

Ultimately, the events of last week demonstrated that politics in Kabul and the war in the countryside are inextricably intertwined. As Mr. Emanuel suggested, no number of foreign troops can defeat the Taliban unless the government they are defending retains the support of ordinary Afghans.

The events of the past week demonstrated just how far the Americans and their European allies have to go here — in the Presidential Palace, where the politics are on display, and in the field, where they ultimately play out.

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