Things can only get better

A government of national unity is the least worst option for Afghanistan

September 14, 2009

A credible, inclusive and secure election was intended to deliver a government with sufficient legitimacy to win back the trust of the population and to work with the US and NATO to restore Afghan Sovereignty. Instead, the Afghan population in general, and the youth and political activists in particular, now believe that a deeply flawed and corrupted election, marked by systematic fraud and low turnout, has robbed the country of the possibility of peaceful change. The direct engagement of international organizations in the election and their endorsement of its credibility has made them suspect, simultaneously providing Iran and the Moslem world with an opportunity to question the West’s commitment to democracy. Salvaging a satisfactory outcome from a flawed process is still possible, provided urgent steps are taken.

Thus predicted that widespread fraud would take place in the Afghan elections, based on first source analysis on the ground allied to the hunch that the occupation forces would allow blind faith, optimism, expediency and an ideological fundamentalist belief in ‘democracy’ to triumph over common sense. Kai Eide, Ostrich-in-Chief of UNAMA and the EU clown troupe observers decreed the elections ‘fair but not necessarily free‘ before any votes had been counted. On the grounds alone that UNAMA spent an improbable $250 million engineering the mechanisms for this danse macabre on the grave of democracy in a failed state, Mr Eide and his money eaters should be declared unfit for purpose. Expecting the current process to produce a team with the credibility to tackle the insurgency and restore stability is, therefore, not realistic. It is more likely that a disenchanted population that now feels disenfranchised will tolerate an expanded insurgency, thereby endangering allied lives and assets, and significantly increasing the nature and dimensions of the challenge to NATO.

Should the election process be validated and the results accepted, the following consequences are probable: First, the government will become more predatory as the officials who committed fraud will feel emboldened by getting away with large scale corruption. Favours promised will be called in. Second, the population would be disenchanted with the process, the integrity and intentions of the Allied and international mission, and the new government, and withdraw further into devising ways to protect themselves from all sides. Third, the insurgency, facing an openly illegitimate government, will have a renewed rallying cry and cause for recruitment. Fourth, the neighbours, particularly Iran, will become more assertive in Afghan affairs, and the struggle between intelligence services, particularly that of India, Pakistan and Russia, will increase significantly. Fifth, a weaker international community will not be able to take a strong posture vis-à-vis the government.

Richard Holbrooke, US ambassador to Afghanistan, is meanwhile trying to backstop the mess by engineering a runoff between Hamid Karzai and ex-foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah (who declared the election fraudulent at an early stage). This is unlikely to enhance the legitimacy of the outcome, as corrupt chains of entrenched interests allied to both Karzai and Abdullah have already mobilized and near term measures will not suffice to loosen their grip on the levers of power and money. A rerun could consolidate and embolden those interests. Furthermore, an election in October will face major logistical obstacles. Given the discredit brought both on IEC and the UN agencies, proceeding with round 2 is likely to perpetuate some of the same symptoms. Moreover, according to complaints submitted to the Afghan Independent Election Commission, both candidates have engaged in widespread ballot rigging. Afghan sources speculate that if Karzai is disqualified (a big if) then the US should shift its backing to Abdullah on the basis that because he is weak he would be easier to control. The flaw in this twisted logic is that Abdullah has neither the strength, popular mandate nor ethnicity to keep the key warlords in check, his corruption might increase if mandated and once support was withdrawn he would be vaporised. Another option is a Karzai-Abdullah coalition – an infernal tag team if ever there was one.

Ashraf Ghani, whom, like Bashardost, ran on the anti-corruption ticket (as did Abdullah when he saw its potential) has proven experience in establishing governance and financial controls – he was finance minister in the last transitional government – has no presidential mandate (and originally stood reluctantly) but could play a key role as mediator, intermediary and Grand Vizier in a government of national unity, embracing all stakeholders, governed under strict, designed to restore sovereignty to the Afghans – an ostensibly ‘weak’ coalition, but infinitely preferable to a licence to steal for the next five years. Thus has so far been the only site to point out the seeming anomaly between Karzai’s declaration of dubiously modest assets of $1000.00 plus $10,200 in family jewels‘ and his officially declared campaign war chest of a $2 million dollar interest free loan from the Bank of Ghazanhar. This sum represents 20% of the funds of this ‘bank,’ a philanthropic institution founded and run by the Ghazanfar family. How and when is this modest unassuming man on a salary of $487 per month going to repay the generosity of his altruistic supporters? Rather like the eponymous Producers in the Mel Brooks movie, he has already promised more seats in the new cabinet than currently available, to lovely men such as Dostum (Thus passim). He has polled 3000 votes in stations where observers only recorded 30 people voting. His brother Walid coincidentally hangs out with folks who allegedly control the opium trade while other family members, through sheer hard work no doubt, appear to run the country’s most lucrative business franchises. He talks of having no truck with the Taliban but shamelessly passed the notorious wife-starving law shortly before the election. Is this a man ‘we’ can do business with?

Though it pains me to say it, we have little choice. The most expedient figurehead leader would be Karzai, supported but not endorsed by the international community under strict and irreversible terms of conditionality. The Taliban, meanwhile, have sat on their hands – having threatened to cut off the hands of anyone who voted – and shrewdly allowed the forces of ‘democracy’ to do their heavy lifting for them. They stand to gain from the continued uncertainty of a protracted runoff, a popular insurrection resulting from forcing through a blatantly corrupt result and a turf war between Tajik, Uzbek and Pashtun forces which would erupt if Abdullah is awarded the paper crown. Time is short: the results will be final on 17 September. So what to do?

Clare Lockhart, of the Institute for State Effectiveness, summarises four options thus:

1. Accommodation with Mujahadeen: Accept Karzai’s claim of victory, and put together a Karzai-Abdullah coalition. This government could be stable in the short term, but is likely to be highly corrupt and unstable in the medium term. Some concessions could be extracted, including the inclusion of technocratic positions and commitment to the US 5-point agenda already discussed with candidates and the restoration of Afghan sovereignty. It is questionable as to whether concessions would be agreed upon or adhered to.

2. Formation of a national government headed by Karzai: Instead of waiting for implosion, action is taken now to put together a national government, with inclusion of broad stakeholder interest groups. A set of benchmarks and processes could be followed and the international community and the Afghan government could sign a binding compact.

3. Formation of a Transitional Government for a two to three year period: The election is deemed fatally flawed and the International Community declare it invalid and disqualify Mr Karzai. A Transitional Government is put together, along the lines of the Bonn Agreement 2002-4, with the key change that key figures will commit not to run for elected office in future. This Administration would be tasked with stabilizing the country and building the basic institutions that would allow for exit of the international presence.

4. Form a quasi-protectorate under an US/international driven agenda, creating governance bottom up, and marginalize the Afghan institutions for a period of time.

Option 2 is the most likely and the most expedient. The loser in this entire sorry process has been the notion of democracy, at least in its US interpretation. The bigger loser could be Barack Obama, who will be a one term President if his administration allows Afghanistan to become his Vietnam.