The last time we checked in on the Afghanistan elections – which are less than a month away – there was a Karzai on the ballot. Last Friday, the brother of the mercurial U.S. ally and president Hamid Karzai, Abdul Qyayum Karzai, officially quit the race.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Karzai’s legendary grip on Afghan politics and government is over. Brother Quayum has reportedly joined forces with candidate Zalmai Rassoul, a longtime confidant and former foreign minister in the Karzai cabinet, and the one candidate who’s been mentioned as having the private endorsement of Hamid.
Rassoul, 70, a western-educated medical doctor and the only candidate (out of the 10 remaining) to have a woman (Dr. Habiba Sarabi, the first female governor in Afghanistan) on his ticket, appears to be one of the most palatable to Washington’s interests. And he is Pashtun, which is practically required for having any influence over the volatile south and east of the country, and in future negotiations with the Taliban (though the Taliban has vowed repeatedly to violently disrupt the elections, which the militants perceive as illegitimate).
So far the Taliban are making good on that promise, killing two security forces and injuring three aides of candidate Abdullah Abdullah in Herat on Monday.
Like all the other candidates, Rassoul has pledged to sign the much talked-about Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S., which would keep an unknown number of NATO/US combat forces in the country and the money flowing. For his own political reasons, Karzai has made a big deal about not signing it. But Rassoul and his fellow candidates aren’t stupid – they need only to look at Iraq right now to get a taste of what might happen if that agreement’s not signed. If Karzai weren’t leaving, and was facing another four years as leader of this ailing nation, you know he would’ve signed the agreement a year ago.
"Rassoul is perfect from the US (point of view) because he will sign – at least he says he will sign – (the BSA), after already bribing all the warlords that matter, (Abdul Rashid) Dostum, et al.," wrote foreign policy writer and author Pepe Escobar, in an email to Antiwar.com.
Rassoul, who has never been an outspoken nor charismatic member of the Karzai team, talks a good game, and is no stranger to the western media, which means they’ve already had time to warm up to him. Case in point: he was recently vetted by the front line of the foreign policy news establishment, Christiane Amanpour, in an on-air broadcast Feb. 27.
"Some say he is Karzai’s handpicked candidate – he’s not the front-runner, but he says he is the best placed to reset relations with Washington, as well as Afghanistan’s other desperately needed donors," Amanpour said, in her introduction.
Afghanistan is tied with North Korea and Somalia for the most corrupt country in the world, mostly thanks to two things: the war, into which the United States and the richest countries in the west have poured billions of dollars in aid and reconstruction money; and Karzai himself, who has not, in the course of a decade, done one single thing to stop the rampant looting of the that foreign aid, the illegal narcotics trade or the outright extortion and exploitation of his own people, at every level of government and business.
That Rassoul has been glued to Karzai’s side since Day One of his government in 2004, and is now backed by and could very well be considering Karzai’s brother as a running mate, should make anyone think twice that he would be any different.
Sure, he tells Amanpour, "the main thing the Afghan people ask from us is to fight corruption, and for justice and security," but if that is the case, shouldn’t Rassoul be seen as the problem, not the potential solution?
Rassoul is no front-runner, Amanpour was right – in fact, no one candidate seems to have a clear edge, which means there’ll be a run-off, because to win the first round one must get more than 50 percent of the total vote. Of course this all assumes (perhaps with too much faith) that the vote will be devoid of the kind of fraud that tainted the country’s last two major presidential elections. If the Karzai brothers are truly interested in seeing Rassoul win, believe me, he will, if Hamid’s last two "stunning victories" are any indication. Election observers are already complaining that the new alliance of Rassoul and Karzai was brokered by undue government influence.
But why should you care? Because the Washington establishment is very much interested in staying in Afghanistan for the long-term, even though every instinct in every fiber of our being should tell us to cut our losses and get out of there as soon as possible. If someone like Rassoul, or Abdullah Abdullah – or even the other western-favored candidate, Ashraf Ghani – were to win, there’s a good chance we’ll be bogged down there militarily for some time to come.
They may not be doing it overtly, but we can probably guarantee that American officials are doing everything they can to ensure that the candidate most amenable to our presence and continued influence there will win next month. Evidence of this is clear in the activities of this group – the Alliance for the Support of the Afghan People – which boasts a wide range of liberal and neoconservative signatories and establishment elite, including former Bush Administration National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, former Obama Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, Michele Flournoy, Fred and Kim Kagan, Gloria Steinem, Peter Bergen, Steve Coll, Michael O’Hanlon, and Khaled Hosseini, celebrated author of the The Kite Runner.
Not far from the levers of power, they are lobbying in well-placed op-eds and no doubt behind-the-scenes, for continued aid, and more obliquely, troop presence, if Flournoy (former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, now senior advisor at the Boston Consulting Group) has any say in it. Depicting the exit of the U.S. as a human rights disaster for women, especially, this group is taking the moral high hand and playing to our heart strings: how can we leave Afghanistan behind when the future "is so bright" (which seems a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it)?
But after $100 billion invested in Afghan reconstruction already, thinking Americans are hard-pressed to believe that any of it has made life for ordinary Afghans any better. We hear every day that women’s rights are being systematically taken away and the country remains mired in poverty and injustice. How can Flournoy and O’Hanlon and crew promise anything different if say, Rassoul, is at the helm? They cannot.
As for the military, outside the E-Ring there seems to be little desire to stay. Who truly believes that leaving a small residual force behind is going to help beat back the emboldened Taliban, or resist the encroachment of Taliban influence from over the Pakistan border? Well, maybe neoconservative Max Boot, who thinks at least 10,000 troops should be left in the country (Boot has no military experience, though he reportedly advised both Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal on Afghanistan and believed it to be a "winnable" war. As they say, heck of a job).
As a member of the now-notorious Project for a New American Century, Boot also helped to promote the Iraq War, which most Americans would consider a deplorable mistake.
But who is keeping score?
Well, folks like Army Lt. Col. Danny Davis are, and he has said explicitly that not only should we ignore the likes of Boot, but we need to forget the BSA and get the troops out now. Davis, as you’ll recall, took on the brass in 2012, calling their obfuscation of the realities of the losing war "a dereliction of duty." He was right all along, most would agree. As a result, he told this writer in a recent interview for The American Conservative, it’s time to go.
"As a result of a series of American leaders saying, year after year, that the mission was succeeding – when clearly it was not – faith in America’s ability to find a solution was irreparably damaged," he said. "There is no ‘good’ solution now," he added.
He asks, rightly so, what will 5,000 – even 10,000 – troops do that 150,000 couldn’t do at the peak of the Afghanistan surge (which Boot had supported, too) in 2009? Nothing, he answers for himself, but waste more American and Afghan lives.
The Afghan people need to choose the best leader for themselves – not for Washington’s interests. The Karzai stamp of approval on Rassoul’s candidacy will likely ensure more of the same. It’s not clear whether any of the 10 remaining candidates fit the bill everyone acknowledges is necessary to keep that country from the abyss. Afghanistan clearly needs an Afghan leader – not an American-sanctioned one – who can break through the mold, be a real Afghan hero.
Maybe it would be more reassuring if the next president weren’t so desperate for us to stay. That might be the mark of a real winner.
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.