Afghanistan: It’s the Election, Stupid!

“And believe it or not, so far, so good. Most news reaching the United States about Afghanistan is troubling, but the election campaign is going reasonably well” – Michael O’Hanlon, Foreign Policy magazine – 1/14/14

A few weeks after the never-prescient O’Hanlon (whose crystal ball might as well be a bowling ball when it comes to war and foreign policy-gaming) wrote those words, two campaign aides for one of the election front-runners, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, were shot dead in the streets of Herat. A campaigner for another top presidential contender, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, was beaten to a pulp by unknown assailants outside a sauna in Korokh.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Ismail Khan, vice presidential running mate to Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, a former Taliban supporter, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt on Jan. 27.

Violence against campaigners has been reported in the city of Herat this month
Violence against campaigners has been reported in the city of Herat this month

The April Afghan elections are less than 50 days away. For their part, the 11 candidates – a colorful mix of technocrats, ex-warlords, Islamists and academics and their running mates – are soldiering on through televised debates and public speeches, despite open hostility from the Taliban, which has vowed to disrupt the elections at all costs.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah

“Finding a way to reach constituencies beyond even the safest cities is one of our biggest challenges,” Halim Yousof, head of Ahmadzai’s Herat campaign office, told Al Jazeera last week.

And forget Herat, according to this story, elections may not be held in parts of eastern Afghanistan at all. “Considering the current situation, the election will most likely not happen in half of Laghman province," the Deputy of Laghman Provincial Council, Gulzar Sangarwal, told TOLOnews.

"Taliban have warned people not to take part in the election,”

The fear has resulted in radio silence across the region. "Even in the capital of Kunar province, people do not know about the election," wrote reporter Sharif Amiry.

An interesting twist on the proceedings: last weekend, Afghan news reported that the infamous Islamic fundamentalist fighter Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has announced his support for presidential candidate Qutbuddin Hilal in the elections. With that endorsement, he’s pledged that his Hezb-e-Islami party will support the Afghan elections (unlike the Taliban). He’s one of those guys who were on the CIA payroll back when the US wanted to help the mujahedeen oust the Soviets. Now he’s a “global terrorist” wanted by the US for his part in attacks against American forces in the country.

No doubt it is better to have him waving a campaign sign than a rifle.

But his entrance into the fray underscores the absolute uncertainty of it all, despite the latest theme in Washington, that the White House will "wait out" the ever-confounding President Hamid Karzai and endeavor to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) with his successor instead.

"The US continues to imagine the world is a chess board where it can cause things to happen – push Karzai into the presidency, replace Karzai when needed, that sort of thing. The reality will shock the White House in equal portion to how little it will shock us when it happens," shared Peter Van Buren, author and critic of the US reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a hearing statement loaded with all sorts of irony and bad Hollywood foreshadowing, Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI, said Feb. 11 that, “whoever the next Afghan president is, he is likely to be more reliable than President Karzai."

Sounds simply easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, Senator, though it may just turn out to be a bunch of lemons in the end.

Why? Let us count the ways.

One: US Afghan policy is always "seat of the pants," and this is no different. Before Christmas, Washington leaders were huffing and puffing and threatening Mr. Karzai with the so-called "zero option" if he did not sign the BSA, which would allow a standing NATO force of some size stay in the country after our timed departure at the end of 2014.

For many reasons we’ve described on these pages and others have explained, Karzai found no reason to give in. In fact, it is better for his own political future (and maybe is life) that he never gives in. That leaves Washington with its own "zero option": pretend we never made the threat, and then kick the can down the road. The only problem is, every time Washington has banked on an election, it’s ended up with fraud, violence and another several years of Karzai. Why should we believe the US has any other well-thought-out plan moving ahead?

Two: there has never been an election without rampant fraud, so why think this time’s any different? As one Rand researcher just pointed out, the last peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan was in 1933. The election in 2010 that gave Karzai another four years was a joke. It was so fraudulent that UN diplomats and friends came to public verbal blows over it. Washington knew what was going on, but decided to accept Karzai’s re-election as the only viable option.

As Dan Murphy for the Christian Science Monitor said recently, "though the US has preferred in the past to refer to Afghan elections as ‘messy’ rather than acknowledge they are fraud fests, the reality can’t be glossed over. Keep your ear tuned for US officials talking about ‘acceptable’ levels of fraud and claims that the simple act of holding a vote is meaningful."

Meanwhile, election workers are already being targeted by the Taliban. Because of security risks, there may be no monitors ensuring free and fair elections in some parts of the country. In many respects, Afghans will just have to go on faith that people will come out to vote, and that their vote won’t be undermined by illegal ballot stuffing and other nefarious manipulations.

Three: there is a Karzai on the ballot. Hamid Karzai’s older brother Abdul Qayyum Karzai is a businessman and former member of the Afghan parliament, and is one of the perceived front-runners (there’s been no national polling as yet). Hamid hasn’t endorsed him openly, but one could just about guarantee he’s pushing for bro behind the scenes. The elder Karzai may say he wants to work with the US for the benefit of his country, but remember, the Karzai family has more than benefited from US aid and intervention over the last ten years. Reports indicate the family made millions off the war and reconstruction, and has a nice little sanctuary in Dubai to prove it.

Ashraf Ghani
Ashraf Ghani

Meanwhile, powerful Kandahar Governor Ahmed Wali Karzai, who denied accusations he was involved in the country’s illegal opium trade, was assassinated in 2010; another brother Mahmoud Karzai was implicated in a 2010 $1 billion bank scandal. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for dynasty.

Some think if Hamid can’t hold onto power outright, family is the next best thing and why not? "Whether it is a brother or a cousin, Karzai has no intention of giving up power," shares Otilie English, a former American contractor in Kabul who has been working on and off to promote democracy in Afghanistan for 30 years.  "One way or another there will be a Karzai or a Karzai crony in power."  

Four: even if the technocrats and reformers win, whom will they be beholden to? The answer is we just don’t know. Two front-runners, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have the most independence from Karzai. Abdullah was in charge of foreign affairs for the government-in-exile when the Taliban took over in the 1990’s and came in second to Karzai in 2010. He dropped out of the run-off because he said he knew it was rigged.

Meanwhile, Ghani is a technocrat and intellectual, who despite a detailed agenda for reform, did poorly in the last election. He was the finance minister – and reportedly a good one – for Karzai’s transitional government from 2002 to 2004. Since then he has been an author and globe-trotting advocate for international investment and support for his country. He’s probably the only candidate to have given a much-ballyhooed "TED Talk."

But apparently cognizant of his 2010 loss, Ghani reached out to General Abdul Rashid Dostum for a running mate. Dostum is a northern warlord and storied former military general who was accused of stuffing thousands of Taliban prisoners into shipping containers and suffocating them to death in 2001 (which he has denied). His addition to Ghani’s slate has raised more than a few eyebrows.

"The decision to line up beside a man accused of letting hundreds of Taliban prisoners swelter to death in shipping containers, and other war crimes, lost him the support of some young pro-reform voters who are his most obvious constituency," writes The Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison.

Then there is Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, also considered a front-runner. He’s an ethnic Pashtun, a religious conservative and has the kind of background that makes the American liberal do-gooder types’ skin crawl. He fought with the mujahedeen against the Soviets but was reportedly the guy who welcomed Osama bin Laden into Afghanistan when he was banished from Saudi Arabia. And he allegedly vouched for the "reporters" who assassinated revered Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud two days before 9/11.

Abdul Sayyaf
Abdul Sayyaf

Sayyaf also led training camps through which 9/11 hijacker Ramzi Yousef supposedly passed through, and according to the US government, "mentored" Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the declared mastermind of the 2001 attacks.

Apparently he has renounced al Qaeda, and is now on the short list for Taliban termination, which makes him only slightly redeemed in the West’s eyes. Nevertheless, Sayyaf has spent the last several years opposing things like women’s rights and supporting amnesty for Afghans who have committed war crimes. His running mate is the aforementioned Ismail Khan, a former mujahedeen commander and governor of Herat who has his own colorful past, and had been working as Karzai’s minister of energy and water since 2005.

Another wild card among the front-runners is Zalmai Rassoul, who served as foreign minister in the present government and is considered one of Karzai’s "inner circle." He is the only candidate with a female running mate and, according to Graham-Harrison, "even after years in government has stayed untainted by the allegations of corruption that have followed so many other officials."

But he has the backing of Karzai, apparently, which should give anyone pause.

And let us not forget, Hamid Karzai is really good at buying off his political enemies, as evidenced in the paring down of his opposition ahead of the 2009 election. Who knows who might fall off the ballot from here and April.

But no matter who wins – Technocrats, warlord, reformers – they’ll all have to cut deals to wield any power, reported David Kashi, for The International Business Times. Even the best fortune-tellers couldn’t anticipate what happens next. "The complex political and ethnic divide that characterizes Afghanistan may mean that none of the candidates would align with US interests."

Sounds like lemons to me. At this point, $700 billion worth.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.