Almost eight years after choosing Hamid Karzai to head the Afghan government, Uncle Sam would like to give him a pink slip. But it’s not easy. And the grim fiasco of Afghanistan’s last election is shadowing the next.
Another display of electioneering and voting has been ordered up from Washington. But after a chemical mix has blown a hole through the roof — with all the elements for massive fraud still in place — what’s the point of throwing together the same ingredients?
This time, the spinners in Washington hope to be better prepared.
Unless the best and brightest who oversee Afghan war policy can rig up a coalition with the top two contestants, a runoff between Karzai and his rival Abdullah Abdullah will happen November 7. What’s on the bill between now and then is a pantomime of electoral democracy.
After such a show, the predictable encore will be further escalation of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
The runoff election has not been scheduled for the benefit of Afghan society. Many millions of people in Afghanistan are now bracing themselves. Every factor that boosted the crescendo of violence last time, cresting with several hundred insurgent attacks on election day, is still present.
The days between now and the scheduled runoff will bring heightened fear, more violence, more killing. And for what?
As with the last election, the intended beneficiaries are far from Afghanistan. In Kabul, shortly after the August 20 vote, I heard many Afghans comment that the purpose of the election was to satisfy North America and Western Europe.
Meanwhile, who is this guy Abdullah, often hyped but rarely scrutinized by the U.S. news media?
At the end of August, when I interviewed the courageous Afghan antiwar feminist Malalai Joya in Kabul, she put it this way: You can give a warlord a shave, a haircut and an expensive suit, but he’s still a warlord.
The most grisly years in Afghanistan’s capital were from 1992 to 1996, when dueling warlords mercilessly rocketed and shelled Kabul. Slaughter of civilians in the city was routine. Estimates of deaths among Kabul residents during those years range from 50,000 to 65,000. Abdullah was one of the warlords most directly engaged in ordering the carnage.
Now the Obama administration and congressional leaders — with Sen. John Kerry playing a starring role in recent days — are making a determined effort to legitimize the Afghan government as a prelude to further U.S. escalation of the war.
This kind of thing happened so many times during the Vietnam War that people lost count. The assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in early November 1963 was an especially dramatic delivery of a pink slip from the White House. What followed was a procession of corrupt human-rights abusers who led South Vietnam’s government.
Some, like bit player Nguyen Khanh, are barely remembered. Others, notably Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu, had staying power as Uncle Sam’s servants in Saigon. And the Pentagon machinery kept revving its gears.
“We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality," freelance American reporter Michael Herr observed in Vietnam. "Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop."
In the midst of military escalation, the hopeful stories we tell ourselves — and the tales that top U.S. officials and mass media keep tweaking and repeating — are whistling past other people’s graveyards.
Doing some whistling themselves, many progressives have exaggerated the extent of recent concerns about this war among Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House. Tactical disputes and strategic reviews should not be mistaken for willingness to move away from a basic policy of endless war.
While the absence of democracy in Afghanistan is glaring, the failure of democracy in the United States is pernicious. At the grassroots, we have yet to grasp the magnitude of this war’s momentum — or to exercise our capacities to stop it.