Predictably, the October 9 Afghan presidential election is heading toward a landslide victory for Interim President Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed candidate who is considered to be the most moderate and acceptable to the Western world. As of October 20, various wire service reported that Karzai was “cruising to victory” (Reuters, AP, October 20). With nearly 60% of the votes already counted, Karzai appears to hold a commanding lead of nearly 60%.
Karzai is reported to have won nearly 90% of the votes cast in the southern and eastern Afghan provinces that are populated by Pashtuns, the 40-to-50% majority ethnic group to which Karzai belongs and that has ruled Afghanistan since it was founded in 1747 by a branch of the Kandahar-based Durrani tribe, of which Karzai is a member. Kings and royal cousins from this tribe ruled Afghanistan until 1978 when communists and their Soviet masters invaded and began the game of ethnic “divide and rule” policy.
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 put into place non-Pashtun leaders, principally Tajiks, the second-most prominent ethnic group, representing some 25% of the population. These ethnic divisions go down the rung with Hazaras at about 18% and Uzbeks at about 12%, and the rest divided among Aimaks, Turkomans, Baluchis, and nomad grazing tribes such as the Pashai and the mountain dwellers, the Nuristanis.
Because of these ethnic representations, the election tally so far is being seen as ethnically stratified. The running mate of ethnic Uzbek strongman and Soviet-era General Abdul Rashid Dostum, weighing in from his lair in Shiberghan in northern Afghanistan said, “Four out of five votes were probably cast along ethnic lines.”
Mohammad Mohaqeq, the candidate for the Hazara ethnic group centered in the central Afghan town of Bamian, claimed that “up to 15%” of Karzai’s support came from “multiple voting” with men casting votes on behalf of their wives and daughters, a practice disallowed under the election rules (AP, October 20).
In the same vein, the ethnic Tajik candidate, Yunus Qanooni, considered to be Karzai’s chief rival, said he would accept the outcome of the election. “I have made sacrifices for the national interests of Afghanistan and I am ready to make another sacrifice” (AFP, October 20). Earlier, fraud allegations by Qanooni had sparked fears that he would reject the final result and undermine the entire process.
However, there are credible reports that the apparent success of the presidential elections has raised hopes that the Taliban are now a spent force. Observers believe that the Taliban failed to disrupt the elections on October 9 because of deep divisions within its ranks. There are reports that fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has been facing “serious disagreements” with his commanders because of their failure to disrupt the elections.
U.S. military spokesman Scott Nelson said the information was based on intelligence reports coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan that said “significant demoralization” among the Taliban and frustration over Omar’s “lack of effectiveness” contributed to the lack of Taliban efforts to disrupt the presidential election.
Major Nelson said that in the 48 hours before the October 9 poll, coalition and Afghan forces thwarted attacks on voting sites and arrested 22 suspects, including Taliban commanders and sub-commanders. At the same time, the forces also killed 22 militants (AP, October 20).
On October 19, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmai Khalilzad told a news briefing in Washington that the United States wants to coax lower-level Taliban members away from their organization. He explained that although Taliban leaders should still be brought to justice and that the military should press its fight to “finish off” the hardliners, the door should be open to lure lower-ranking Taliban members who are willing to renounce past violence and enter civilian life (Dawn, October 19).
In the meantime, Reginald Austin, chief technical adviser to the United Nations and Afghan organizers of the election, said that by October 21 the vote counting should all but ensure Karzai as the winner, barring a major shock from an investigation by foreign experts into allegations of electoral fraud that was raised by several of Karzai’s 17 presidential challengers immediately following the balloting.
However, Ray Kennedy, deputy chairman of the Joint Electoral Management Body, stressed that the board would announce the outcome only after all the votes are counted and the probe into alleged irregularities are complete. (AP, October 20).