The April 5 presidential elections are not likely to change conditions for the long-suffering Afghan people much as long as there is foreign manipulation through money and troops presence in the country.
Afghans head to the polls to elect a new president on April 5. This is past Crescent press time. Given the uncertainties in the war-torn, US-NATO occupied country, nothing can be taken for granted. However, assuming that elections are held even if the Taliban disrupt the process in some parts of the country as they did in 2009, who would emerge victorious and what does the future hold for a country that has been in the throes of war and turmoil since Sardar Daoud’s government was overthrown in a Marxist coup on April 27, 1978 are questions on the minds of most Afghans.
Two contenders from a crowded field of 10 candidates appear to be in the lead: Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rassoul. The former is backed by the US while the latter has the backing of outgoing President Hamid Karzai whose brother Qayyum dropped his own bid to join former foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul. In the streets of Kabul it is common knowledge that the US has pumped millions of dollars into Abdullah’s campaign to secure his victory.
In the 2009 elections, Abdullah alleged rigging when he was runner-up to Karzai. There certainly was rigging but whether Abdullah would have won if there was no rigging is a moot point. It was John Kerry, then Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, who persuaded Abdullah to back off and allow Karzai to continue as president with the promise that come next election, the US would ensure his (Abdullah’s) victory. He is now banking on Washington to put him in the presidential palace. Karzai may have different ideas.
Not only has he thrown his weight behind Rassoul, a fellow Pashtun unlike Abdullah who is Tajik, he is also playing hard ball with the US over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). There is nothing bilateral about the security agreement; after all, Afghanistan is hardly likely to come to America’s rescue if the latter needs help! Washington desperately needs the agreement because it would allow the US to maintain some 10,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline. There are many reasons for Washington’s keen desire to remain in Afghanistan: economic, geo-strategic and political.
Karzai knows that after the presidential election, his importance will decline precipitously. He is trying to present himself as an Afghan nationalist to curry favor with the Taliban. There is another factor also playing on Karzai’s mind. Every Pashtun leader from Sardar Daoud down has been murdered: Nur Muhammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin (but not his Tajik successor Babrak Karmal), and Dr. Najibullah. The latter was lynched in the UN compound when the Taliban stormed Kabul in September 1996. Then for good measure, Najibullah and his brother’s bodies were dragged through the streets of Kabul before hoisting them on lamp posts and left to dangle for several days. Karzai wants to avoid this fate.
April, however, may not prove to be a good month for Afghanistan or Karzai. It was in April 1978 that Afghanistan’s troubles began. Marxist elements in the Afghan army led by Major Aslam Watanjar led the tank assault on the presidential palace and killed not only President Sardar Daoud, who according to all accounts, put up a valiant fight until the bitter end, but also slaughtered his entire family (Watanjar died of cancer in Ukraine in November 2000).
Whether Karzai will succeed in his plan is a moot point. If he fails, it will not be for lack of trying. He has dug in his heels over the BSA. In fact, with every passing day, his attitude hardens. He insists that this must be left to his successor to decide but he is trying hard to put his own man in the presidential palace. Since his tense exchange with US National Security Advisor Susan Rice in Kabul last November, he has become even more intransigent. There has been little or no communication between him and President Barack Obama in more than a year.
In his final address to Afghanistan’s parliament on March 15, Karzai told the US its soldiers can leave at the end of the year. He insisted the Afghan army, that already protects 93% of the country, was ready to take over all security duties throughout Afghanistan. In addition to demanding that the US stop all night raids into people’s homes, he has now added anther condition: peace must first be established by initiating dialogue with the Taliban before he would agree to the prolonged presence of US troops. He wants the US to arrange such talks. There are rumors that Karzai has sent feelers to the Taliban about such talks but whether the latter are willing to engage is a different matter.
Karzai does not want his legacy to include a commitment to long-term foreign troop presence in Afghanistan. This was evident in his hour-long speech to parliament, “I want to say to all those foreign countries who maybe out of habit or because they want to interfere, that they should not interfere.” He even mustered the courage to say that the war was “imposed” on Afghanistan. He also took his usual swipe at Pakistan accusing it, without naming it, of maintaining terrorist sanctuaries and supporting terrorism.
Aware that nobody else is likely to mention his accomplishments, since there are so few, Karzai did not wish to pass the opportunity to talk them up during his final parliamentary address. He claimed schools are functioning and women have been given rights (these are currently being threatened with curtailment), energy projects are coming online and the Afghan currency has been stabilized. Of course he did not touch on the billions of dollars pilfered out of the country in suitcases to purchase properties in Dubai and elsewhere. As his parting advice to the incoming president, “I know the future president will protect these gains and priorities and will do the best for peace in the country and I, as an Afghan citizen, will support peace and will cooperate.”
Will he remain in Afghanistan as citizen Karzai or relocate to Dubai, or even India? There are two other recent developments that Karzai could not ignore. One will have brought relief and the other added to his worries. On March 9, the powerful warlord Mohammed Qasim Fahim of the Northern Alliance suddenly dropped dead at the relatively young age of 57. The bull-necked Fahim spoke little but was a dreaded figure. His sudden departure has clearly weakened Abdullah’s chances. In Afghanistan, muscle and threats count for more than what one has to offer by way of policies to the people.
The worrying thing is that the Uzbek warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum has been making rounds of the Central Asian republics, almost certainly with a view to creating an independent space for his Uzbek fiefdom. Dostum is a wild card and can change loyalty with the flick of a pen. He is also utterly ruthless. With the fall of the Taliban at the end of 2001, he locked up thousands of Taliban prisoners in containers where they suffocated to death. Whosoever becomes the next Afghan president will have to deal with the Dostum factor. And it will not be easy.
In fact, if the Americans do not get their way with the long-term security agreement, they may encourage Dostum’s irredentist tendencies creating enormous problems for a future Afghan government. This is what the late Russian General Secretary of the Soviet Presidium Leonid Brezhnev has dreamed about. An American president may come to realize it.