Election Fail in Afghanistan

The American effort to achieve anything in Afghanistan has reached a point of darkly humorous failure. The country is called “the Graveyard of Empires,” and for a good reason. In the face of this reality, American goals in the country have shifted again and again from “ensuring stable, democratic government” to “simply defeating Al-Qaeda and leaving nation-building to the Afghanis” in a farcical attempt to justify our presence there.

The Afghani election’s recent failure was not particularly significant; it fit in quite well with what has been going on in Afghanistan. Anyone who hoped that a perfect election would be held was too optimistic. But the extent to which the election simply collapsed in a heap of open corruption, strikes a rather ominous tone for the future of foreign involvement there.

Here’s a summary of the tragicomedy: after the UN’s Electoral Complaints Commission established that absurdly open vote rigging had been conducted by Hamid Karzai supporters, Karzai, the current president, had to be convinced — as if it was some matter of controversy or other options were available — by his international bosses that he had to concede to a second round of elections. But opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah withdrew rather than participate in another election overseen by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, an apparatus full of openly pro-Karzai civil servants.

Karzai was an embarrassment to his Western patrons long before they had to go through the awkward charade of pretending that he had fairly won the election. He spent large sums of international money buying political support from Afghani warlords, and many believe his brother to be involved in Afghanistan’s drug industry and to even be on the CIA’s payroll.

The failure of the election has important implications. The British government has controversially decided to continue operations in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration continues to deliberate whether or not to commit additional troops to the country. In the opinion of many analysts, the two governments wanted Karzai to lose. If that was the case, they can’t be feeling particularly good now.

Prime Minister Brown recently stated that while Britain had to continue with the mission in Afghanistan, he didn’t wish to put British troops in danger to support a corrupt government. One can’t help but agree with the opposition Tories, who accused him of vacillation. If Brown was truly against supporting a corrupt government, he probably would have withdrawn British troops a while ago, especially now that it’s confirmed that Karzai has hardly any more right to power than Ahmadinejad.

It would have been unrealistic to expect the election to go well, or that Afghan governments could be corruption-free. It’s not as if Abdullah Abdullah was necessarily a saint, but he did represent change, and had a concrete idea of what that change would entail. One of the changes that he is reported to have proposed is changing Afghanistan to a proper parliamentary system.

Even though Abdullah lost, Karzai’s benefactors should pressure him to adopt this change anyways. The centralized presidential government currently in place in Afghanistan does not work well for the country. Instead of the Afghani government, the Taliban has firmly controlled all of the country’s disparate and remote areas. We all know the level of brutality and state policing with which they achieved such an exceptional goal.

When the current Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was being fashioned, more than half of the delegates of Constitutional Loya Jirga were in favor of parliamentary government. But Karzai and his allies pushed for a powerful executive branch, one that assigns inordinate power to an individual. Given the way the voting works, Afghanis tend to vote along ethnic lines, and the executive will almost always be from the most populous Pashtuns. Ethnicity has become an even more divisive factor in Afghani politics.

As it stands now, Afghanistan doesn’t even have political parties, an absurdity for which one can thank Karzai. Hopefully it isn’t too bold to hope that Karzai will take the long term view and implement political reform.

For America, the decision to put more troops in Afghanistan is a tricky one. There is basically no “right” answer, which is only marginally encouraging. There is some controversy as to what the goals are. Just as the Bush Administration, when it was forced to concede the lack of WMDs in Iraq, began to emphasize how good it was that Iraq was free from Saddam Hussein, policymakers on both sides of the political divide have had to quietly talk about the immediate threat posed by Al-Qaeda instead of a democratic, economically solvent Afghanistan. And it’s not even clear whether a threat from Al-Qaeda still exists.

In any case, putting more troops in Afghanistan is probably the safer route. The Taliban and their ilk can surely solidify their position as a result of this latest travesty. Furthermore, America is the only NATO country that is willing to commit a substantial number of additional troops. The notion that the Afghanis need to “step up” and take responsibility for their country, like the similar stance taken by some regarding Iraq, is absurd. They didn’t decide to start the war in the first place, America did. And it is a practically untenable position as well, since even though good counter insurgency theory dictates that a country like Afghanistan will need about 650,000 troops to stabilize it, the Afghan National Army’s current target is 130,000 troops; it now stands at around 90,000.

Foreign troops are essential. It’s difficult to substantiate the Labour Government’s claim to the British people that troops in Afghanistan directly contribute to security at home, but who wants to see the benefits of withdrawal for America. All we know is that some troops would come home; but who knows what could go wrong in Afghanistan next?

Samier Saeed is fourth-year economics major. He can be reached at ssaeed@uci.edu.