Elections: an unfamiliar exercise in Afghanistan


When Americans are not winning hearts and minds by dropping 1,000-pound bombs on wedding parties or mud-hut dwelling women and children as they did in Farah province on May 4 killing 147 civilians, 93 of them children, they are busy delivering democracy through cruise missiles. This month, however, Afghans will go through an exercise that most are quite unfamiliar with and largely uninterested in: presidential elections in which the incumbent is a shoe-in despite the Americans being unhappy with him.

On August 20, Hamid Karzai will face off against 40 challengers for the presidency but his success is virtually assured. Even American-backed candidates –” Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, for instance –” concede that the incumbent cannot be dislodged. Karzai has chosen his running mates carefully making sure he covers different ethnic bases. He has chosen Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the brutal Tajik commander, to attract Tajik vote, and Muhammad Karim Khalili, a Hazara Shia, to garner votes of the Afghan Shias.

In typical Afghan tradition, Karzai has made other deals as well. In June he reinstated the notorious Uzbek warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum as chief of army staff. Dostum has a habit of switching loyalties and was directly implicated in the massacre of 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war in Shebergan in November 2001. The prisoners were stuffed into metal containers where most suffocated. Others were shot and killed. The Americans did not intervene to prevent the murder of prisoners of war, making them complicit in war crimes. Karzai also appears to have made a brazenly explicit promise to Muhammad Muhaqqeq, leader of a large ethnic party and a former militia commander. In an interview last June, Muhaqqeq said Karzai had promised his group, the Islamic National Unity Party, five seats in his cabinet in exchange for his support. To be fair to him, Karzai has made an even bigger offer to the Taliban but they have refused to accept it. Thus, while his own support base among the Pashtuns may be narrow, the deals will facilitate Karzai’s victory because he has neutralised potential rivals, like Gul Agha Sherzai, governor of Nangarhar province, by bribing him and promising him an important post after the elections.

Afghan democracy, however, is a cruel joke in the prevailing environment. US President Barrack Obama has dispatched 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Last month, 4,000 Marines were deployed in Helmand province where they planned to win “hearts and minds”–”the new mantra of all foreign forces, but they will achieve little success. Not only have Taliban been resisting such deployment as was evident from the roadside bomb on July 13 but most people in the region have told the Americans, and indeed all foreigners, to leave them alone. The Afghans would like to sort their own problems.

Last month was also pretty grim for the British who lost 15 soldiers, among them several officers, in the first 10 days of July. The British losses at 184 in Afghanistan have now surpassed those in Iraq, that other bastion of “democracy” bequeathed by the Americans and British to the people of the Middle East. The Americans have been soundly defeated in Iraq no matter what spin they put on it. There may not be a ‘Siagon moment’ but the reality of the situation in Iraq points to a massive failure in State-building and democracy. Iraq has been destroyed; there is virtually no infrastructure left. A country that boasted one of the best medical services in the Middle East before the Americans invaded has one of the highest infant mortalities rates in the region today. There is little or no law and order and people are literally starving.

Afghanistan presents an even grimmer picture. The situation is so bad that the Human Development Index does not provide many vital statistics about the country. Western leaders –” Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for instance –” talk optimistically about bringing democracy and establishing a strong Afghan state. This is a colonial project in which the wishes of the local population carry little weight. Those who resist this project must be defeated and eliminated, according to Obama who insists that he is determined to prevent the Taliban from taking control because it would lead to “brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people, especially women and girls.” In his Cairo speech on June 4, Obama had said he would continue to keep American troops in Afghanistan as long as there are “extremists in the mountains of Afghanistan and now Pakistan” willing to kill American troops and civilians. This is a tall order. The very presence of foreign troops acts as a trigger for taking up arms. Despite their primitive ways, the Taliban and indeed Afghans in general have never attacked America. All they want is to get the foreigners off their backs.

This, however, is unlikely to be achieved when Western leaders continue to mislead their largely ignorant publics into believing that their soldiers are doing “God’s work” by bringing democracy and freedom. Liberating Afghan women from the clutches of cruel Afghan men is another favourite theme in Western discourse on Afghanistan. If the “moral obligation” of doing good work by killing the bad guys –” all those killed in Afghanistan, whether women or children, are automatically considered bad and, therefore, deserving death –” is one aspect of this propaganda, the other is fear of Western failure that would pose an existential threat to its way of life. Since Western, especially the American way of life is the manifest destiny of this superior breed the lower races will have to be sacrificed to preserve it.

The Western media continue to be act as cheer leaders by misrepresenting the reality in Afghanistan and downplaying the fact that a vast majority of people in Britain, the US, Canada, The Netherlands etc are opposed to Western troop deployment in Afghanistan. While the West claims to bring democracy to peoples in far off lands, Western governments refuse to adhere to its most basic precepts by not respecting the wishes of the majority. Conjuring up images of ‘failed states’ and the threat these pose to the West’s way of life may sound good and rational but they fail to address the underlying causes of conflicts worldwide.

The US is not a force for good and never has been. Every conflict in the Muslim world today can be traced directly or indirectly to US interference by trying to impose its will on others. Even Obama’s promised change is no change at all in Afghanistan. He had an opportunity to distance himself from his predecessor’s disastrous policy; instead he has embraced it as his own. He has gone further: Obama has extended this war into Pakistan that has created a frightening scenario for the people there.

Western officials, aided and abetted by international agencies that are little more than outposts of Western imperialism, prattle about development projects in Afghanistan. Building a few Western style buildings in Kabul does not mean development has come to the country. People’s needs are more basic, the first of which is security that is woefully lacking. If Karzai himself cannot feel secure in his presidential palace in Kabul, how can anyone else have hope of peace and security outside? There are only two kinds of economic activity: foreign aid and poppy cultivation. Withdraw foreign aid and the state would collapse like a pack of cards. Western officials prattle off statistics about the number of girls’ schools that have been built but when there is no security for girls travelling from home to school and no guarantee that schools would not be blown up, erecting buildings means little. In many villages, people have told the foreign occupation troops to leave them alone. They do not want Westerners telling them how to order their lives. After the Farah bombings last May, there were massive demonstrations in the affected village as well as in Kabul. The Afghans can do without such Western “help” delivered through 1,000-pound bombs.

Part of the US-Western strategy for bringing stability is to build the Afghan army and police. This is a tall order. During the day, these people may be members of the army or police, at night they are part of the Taliban. Besides, there is widespread corruption among government officials that has exacerbated people’s problems. Even Obama has been forced to admit this. When villagers have a problem, they do not go to the police or government officials; they seek out the Taliban who are able to address their concerns. Who would want to rely on corrupt government or police officials when their problems can be resolved at the local level without cost?

What Afghanistan and Iraq have shown is the limits of US power and knowledge and, therefore, limits to its ability to shape outcomes in distant lands. Even if the overall policy was noble, which it is not, Americans would not have succeeded. Afghans are not the kind of people that will submit to foreign occupation. Left to their own devices, they would probably fight it out until they are exhausted; then they would sit down and hammer out their differences. This is what they have historically done. It may be extremely frustrating for outsiders to understand but this is how the Afghans function. The sooner others accept this reality, the better for everyone.

Never in its history has the Afghan government exercised control over the entire country. This was always done through tribal leaders. A modus operandi existed in which the tribal leaders pledged allegiance to the central government in return for handouts and a large measure of autonomy. Whether Karzai remains in power or the Taliban take over, this situation will not change. And the Americans will not be able to impose their style of government on the tribal society in Afghanistan no matter how many battalions of marines are sent there.

Regrettably, no Western government has thought of an exit strategy from Afghanistan. The phrase “exit strategy” has become an insult; it is considered dishonourable even to contemplate but what precisely is the strategy in Afghanistan and how the West wishes to achieve it? There are no clear answers. When 15 British soldiers were killed last month, the British defence secretary said they sacrificed their lives to “make us safe” in Britain. How? The same illogical assertions are made by Canadian politicians who insist that Canada is doing a great job in Afghanistan. So far, Canada has lost 125 soldiers and the Canadian military mission is due to end in February 2011. Would Afghanistan have achieved peace and security by then and it would be a land of milk and honey? If not, what precisely is the purpose of the Canadian mission? No one is prepared to address this issue except to insist that everyone must “support our troops”. This is an attempt to stifle debate on an issue that must be debated openly and candidly.

It is such muddled thinking that has led to so much suffering and destruction in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan has been bombed back beyond the Stone Age, the fact also is that it is the result of such ill-conceived policies as the war in Afghanistan and Iraq that the West is on the verge of economic collapse. The answer to this problem is not to dispatch more special forces under the command of General Stanley McChrystal, a notorious war criminal, but to put an end to this insane policy.

If Obama wants to bring change, he can find no better place than Afghanistan to start with but given the control of the military industrial complex on the American system, this would be too much to expect. What we can expect is more killings in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan as well and greater suffering for the people of the region. And yes, the much-coveted oil and gas pipelines through Afghanistan will continue to remain a pipedream as long as there are foreign troops trampling that unfortunate land under their boots.