Afghanistan’s thrice-postponed presidential election, due to be held on October 9, is turning into a grand farce. Far more people are registered than are eligible to vote, though that hardly cramps the American installed-puppet Hamid Karzai’s style. When asked about it, he said in effect, let the people have “double democracy”. People with more than one registration card are selling them to the highest bidders, in this case usually Karzai because, as America’s favourite, he is flush with cash. But he still faces a serious challenge on several fronts. His most formidable rival is Yunus Qanooni, who has served both as interior and education minister in Karzai’s interim government. Qanooni’s goal is to secure his position and that of his Tajik supporters, who are a tiny minority, in any future set-up. The other challenge comes from the Taliban, who still hold sway in much of the Pashtun tribal belt in the south and southeast, with whose support Karzai hopes to retain his post.
He is taking no chances: he is trying to persuade Qanooni to abandon his own plans and join him, according to reports from Kabul (New York Times, September 21). Qanooni has confirmed the offer, but said that he was not happy with it. What he had in mind was not immediately clear, but it seems likely that his powerful Tajik allies, foreign minister Abdullah and defence minister Marshal Mohammad Fahim, will persuade him to relent. Under the deal, not only would Qanooni retain his post but also foreign minister Abdullah likewise, while Fahim would become chairman of the senate. Karzai has already got Wali Masood, younger brother of Ahmed Shah Masood, for his running mate. With the promises of posts to other Tajiks, this is not bad for a minority whose numbers do not warrant such favours. But numbers mean nothing in Afghanistan; guns and dollars rule the land. The Tajiks have most of the guns and also some money from the drug trade (they have vast areas under poppy cultivation), but still consider that income not enough. Karzai has few guns but, as America’s favourite, he has all the dollars he needs. So he hopes to buy the Tajiks’ loyalty for a fistful of dollars; it is the troublesome Taliban and their supporters who cannot be bought so easily.
With voter-registration due to begin on October 1 among Afghan refugees in camps in Pakistan, leaflets and letters have started to appear that urge people not to vote. Some of the leaflets have been distributed on behalf of the Taliban in Jallozai refugee-camp, asking people to stay away from this “unIslamic act”. Other pro-Taliban elements have been organizing meetings in mosques and hujras (large open areas outside the houses, where Pashtun men traditionally meet to socialize). A boycott campaign is underway even as the International Organisation for Migration is set to launch voters” registration in the refugee camps in the North West Frontier Province, in the Federally Administered Tribal Area, and in Islamabad and Baluchistan from October 1. A number of leading ulama have circulated a letter in the famous Shamshato camp near Peshawar, asking refugees to boycott the presidential elections.
US president George Bush, eager to show some progress in Afghanistan before his own attempt on November 2 to extend his presidency for another term (all the more because it seems increasingly unlikely that he will have any progress to show in Iraq before then), held two meetings with Karzai and president general Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan while they were in the US for the UN general assembly meeting. Bush had the two men together for a half-hour meeting in New York on the evening of September 21, and then had Musharraf over for breakfast the next morning to ensure that he understood what was expected of him. True, other issues, such as the whereabouts of Usama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were also part of the agenda, as was the aid package to Pakistan, should Musharraf succeed in helping Bush’s re-election by capturing either of the wanted men, but the real issue was the Afghan elections. Musharraf was told to ensure that the two million Afghan refugees are all registered and voting for Karzai, and that it is his job to prevent the Taliban from disrupting the polls. He pledged that “Pakistan will do all it can to prevent terrorists from using our territory to disrupt the Afghan election.” He also took it upon himself to ensure that as many refugees as possible were registered. Under normal circumstances, this would be denounced as gross interference in the internal affairs of another country, but not in US-occupied Afghanistan.
The US is still not finding it easy going, either in Afghanistan or in Iraq, despite all this cooperation and support from others. Bush, however, stubbornly parrots the line that all is well and that both countries are making great “progress” toward democracy. How out of touch he is with reality was demonstrated when three American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in separate incidents on September 20. Nematullah Shahrani, the Afghan vice-president, narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded near his convoy in northern Afghanistan. Such attacks are common; even Karzai has not been immune from them. UN officials paint a dismal picture of a country gripped by lawlessness, murder and kidnaps, yet Bush appears to believe his own propaganda.
Elections are not a necessity for the Afghan people at this stage; their concerns are more basic: food, water, shelter and security. Elections are needed only by Bush, who has to have something with which to hoodwink the American people before November 2. While Afghanistan had been relegated to the back-burner, Iraq being much more in the limelight because of the level of resistance and the number of American casualties, it is Afghanistan where elections have become an urgent business. They can hardly be postponed again; hence the desperate attempt to enact a farce so that it can be presented as an achievement. Even this is becoming something of a challenge for a ‘superpower” that does not know how to conceal its own impotence in the face of resistance by rag-tag bands of lightly-armed Afghans.