The October 9 poll to elect a new president in Afghanistan holds no surprises. Most foreign observers and Afghans perceive the election campaign as a farce, and that if the Bush administration wants to continue interim President Hamid Karzai in his present post for another five years, then Karzai will win. So far, events are unfolding according to plan, despite challenges from 17 other candidates and intensified Taliban efforts to disrupt the process.
Beyond the problem of falsified registration figures reinforced by double and triple registration of some voters, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, the urbanized Afghan-born Pashtun Zalmay Khalilzad, is now being accused of manipulating the election in favor of Karzai, who is also a Pashtun but with more well-known and prestigious tribal ties.
Interim President Karzai’s strongest opponent, former interior and education minister Yunus Qanooni, is already reported to have reached some kind of “deal.” According to Iran’s Radio Tehran (September 21), Qanooni is willing to withdraw from the race if he is made minister of reconstruction after Karzai wins the election. As part of the same deal, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister, would be retained, appointed as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington, or become the permanent Afghan envoy to the United Nations in New York.
Qanooni is one of the powerful Panjshir Valley triumvirate that led ethnic Tajiks of the Northern Alliance to victory over the Taliban with U.S. help. He had resigned from the government after Karzai unexpectedly dropped Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the powerful defense minister and first vice president, as his running mate. Qanooni also has support from the third member of the triumvirate, Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The Panjshiri triumvirate is opposed to Karzai’s U.S.-backed policies that include the disarmament of warlords who have provided the muscle for the Northern Alliance.
On September 25 another key presidential candidate, representing the 18% -strong Shia Hazara tribe, Mohammed Mohaqiq, revealed that Ambassador Khalilzad had indirectly suggested that he drop out of the presidential race. According to Mohaqiq, Khalilzad approached influential members of his political party and put “pressure” upon him to the point that he agreed to withdraw under “certain conditions.” However, Karzai apparently did not agree to those conditions.
Mohaqiq said, “It is not only me. The U.S. ambassador and his assistants have been doing the same thing with all candidates. That is why all people think that not only Khalilzad is like this, but also the whole U.S. government. They want Karzai — and this election is just a show” (PakTribube.com, September 25).
Another important presidential candidate is Abdul Latif Pedram, a professor of Oriental Studies, published poet, and member of the Northern Alliance who has spent many years in exile in Paris. Pedram observed that “a truncated Afghan election process” is designed to benefit two incumbents, namely President Karzai and President George W. Bush. According to Pedram, “a comfortable win by Karzai in a carefully controlled election” would boost President Bush’s re-election chances and that is why “an uneven electoral playing field exists in Afghanistan.” He complained, “Mr. Karzai can go with American helicopters and American bodyguards to ten provinces in one day. What can we do?”
Supporting Pedram’s criticism, Afghan and Western analysts have said that “pressure” from the United States and Karzai has forced United Nations officials, who are organizing the vote, “to create a form of instant democracy that cuts corners.” Andrew Wilder, head of the independent Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, conceded, “It’s hard not to conclude that this [election] was so much about getting an end result and not having a meaningful process” (PakTribune.com, September 28).
Human Rights Watch, in a 52-page report, “The Rule of the Gun: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in the Run-Up to Afghanistan’s Presidential Election,” released on September 29, highlighted the power of the warlords to influence the election in Afghanistan. “The warlords are still calling the shots,” said Brad Adams, director of Asian programs for Human Rights Watch. “Many voters in rural areas say the militias have already told them how to vote, and that they are afraid of disobeying them. Activists and political organizers who oppose the warlords fear for their lives,” Adams said (Aopnews.com, September 29).