Afghan race becomes Karzai's cliffhanger
The Taliban's activities are hogging the headlines, as they spill over to the northern and western provinces of Afghanistan. The murder of the police chief of Dasht-e-Archi district in the northern Kunduz province on Wednesday following the Taliban overrunning the district and storming his headquarters in the town center comes as an eye-opener. Sizeable numbers of "foreign fighters" have moved northward with the intent of reaching the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan.
The alienation of the Pashtun settlements in the north, the split between the Uzbekis and the Tajiks in the Amu Darya region and the steady fragmentation of Rashid Dostum's Jumbish are factors that help the Taliban. All in all, therefore, the presidential election in Afghanistan on August 20 has assumed immense significance for the geopolitics of the region.
Karzai may face runoff ...
But the election, whose result was considered a foregone conclusion, has become a cliffhanger. President Hamid Karzai faces an existential threat from no one other than his erstwhile mentors in Washington, as his campaign seeking re-election enters the final week.
The US is waging a rearguard battle of attrition to ensure Karzai somehow falls short of securing an outright victory in the first round, which would necessitate a run-off. The latest barrage against Karzai is the sensational report by Germany's Stern magazine that British special forces seized "tons" of opium from the compound of his half-brother. Furious denials followed, but the damage has been done. One more dent in Karzai's reputation.
A painless "regime change" devolves on Karzai's lackluster performance in the first round of the election. The systematic "degradation" of Karzai's political record has eroded his standing. A US-funded opinion poll found Karzai would poll only 36% of votes, which is way below the 50% mark for an outright victory. The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, loudly speculated in London last week that the election could go to a second round. A European Union official in Kabul privately admitted that the Independent Election Commission had begun working on the ballot for round two.
Simultaneously, the vicious media attack on Karzai continues. Elizabeth Rubin of The New York Times magazine quoted a Western intelligence official as saying, "The Karzai family has opium and blood on their hands ... When history analyses this period and looks at this family, it will uncover a litany of extensive corruption that was tolerated because the West tolerated this family."
Anthony Cordesman, senior foreign policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who just visited Afghanistan to assist US commander General Stanley McChrystal in the preparation of the Pentagon's review of the current situation, wrote in the Times newspaper that Karzai's government is "corrupt, grossly over-centralized, lacking in capacity and virtually absent in large parts of Afghanistan". In an article in The Washington Post last week, US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry ostentatiously distanced the US from Karzai.
David Kilcullen, one-time counter-insurgency advisor in Iraq to Central Command chief General David Petraeus, in a speech last week at the US Institute of Peace, the influential Washington think-tank, following a visit to Afghanistan said Karzai reminded him of the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem who was murdered and removed from power in Saigon in 1963 in a US-backed military coup during the John F Kennedy administration.
Underscoring the potential for a post-ballot coup, Kilcullen, who is tipped to join McChrystal's team said: "He [Karzai] is seen as ineffective; his family are corrupt; he's alienated a very substantial portion of the population. He seems paranoid and delusional and out of touch with reality. That's all the sort of things that were said about President Diem in 1963."
Now, that is real dynamite. Kilcullen is wired to the US military establishment. Indeed, McChrystal, who was expected to present this week to the US president his progress report on the AfPak strategy, was summoned to a "secret" meeting in Belgium last week with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and told to take more time and make his report only after the August 20 vote.
Surely, the Afghan kaleidoscope is shifting with dizzying speed. Since his return to Kabul, McChrystal gave a media interview exaggerating the Afghan situation in near-apocalyptic terms. A first-rate political animal - as all good soldiers ought to be, perhaps - he seemed to be preparing the American domestic opinion for some hard decisions.
... as US sponsors his opponents
What is quite apparent already is that the US's preferred candidates in the Afghan election arena are the former World Bank official and finance minister Ashraf Ghani and the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Ghani is an aristocrat with a long line of ancestors hailing from the Ahmadzai tribe, one of the largest and most powerful Pashtun tribes. Ghani's grandfather brought King Mohammad Nadir Shah (King Zahir Shah's father) to power in the early 20th century. Ghani's brother Hashmat Ghani is the current grand council chieftain of the Kuchis and serves as the tribal representative of approximately one-fourth of the entire Afghan population.
Thus, Ghani is sure to split Pashtun votes that might have gone to Karzai, as happened in the 2004 election. Pashtuns account for nearly 45% of the Afghan population.
Equally, Abdullah who is half-Tajik and was an aide to slain Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud is well poised to split the Northern Alliance votes that Karzai hoped to garner thanks to his choice of vice presidential running mates Mohammed Fahim and Karim Khalili. Abdullah is a bit of a dark horse as he was essentially a public relations man in Massoud's inner circle and lacked grassroots support among Panjshiris. But he was Massoud's blue-eyed boy, half-Tajik and charismatic. His capacity to take on Fahim is debatable, but then Panjshiris are a divided lot today.
Again, Rashid Dostum, Afghan Uzbeki leader, who pledged support to Karzai, has been pressured by Americans from returning to Mazar-i-Sharif from Turkey to rally his supporters. In his absence, Jumbish is drifting and Abdullah hopes to capitalize on it. In short, Abdullah is merrily poaching among Northern Alliance groups and the erstwhile Mujahideen who would have otherwise rallied behind the Karzai-Fahim-Khalili ticket.
The American estimation is that if Karzai is forced into a runoff, anti-Karzai votes would coalesce, especially in a runoff facing Abdullah. The US government-funded media organizations have begun building up Abdullah. One commentary eulogized:
With many Afghans expressing disappointment with the inefficiency and corruption that has plagued Karzai's government, Abdullah is running under a banner of "hope and change" and remains adamant he can turn things around ... Abdullah projects the image of a modern Afghan at ease with his "jihadi" past and integration into the modern world. People who worked closely with him praise his leadership and diplomatic skills ... On the back of a formidable political machine, Abdullah is considered to be the man with the best chance ... to force a runoff with Karzai.
'Iran-like' situation may arise
Unsurprisingly, Abdullah has offered to induct Ghani into the new government as a de facto prime minister in line with a political transformation that Washington seeks. (Karzai made a similar offer but Ghani publicly ridiculed it.)
Equally, Washington counts on Abdullah's diplomatic skills to advance reconciliation with the Taliban. He led the Afghan delegation to the Afghanistan-Pakistan regional peace jirga (council) in 2007 and is acceptable to Islamabad. Abdullah, who is a half-Pashtun, was shrewd enough to realize early enough that his post-2001 political future would depend on US patronage and Pakistani acceptance and, therefore, he played his cards skillfully while being the foreign minister during 2002-2006.
Karzai saw through Abdullah's growing ambitions and sacked him - to the dismay of the Americans - when he was on a visit to Washington in 2006 at the invitation of the then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Abdullah's political life seemed to have ended prematurely. But he lingered in the shadows only to be summoned back to the limelight by the Americans who invited him to return to the US in 2008 as a born-again Afghan statesman and was lionized by the think-tankers and policymakers. It was clear that the Americans who had got disenchanted with Karzai by then, were beginning to scout for talent and carefully choreograph Abdullah's re-entry onto the center stage of the Afghan political theater.
Thus, Abdullah shed his close association with Karzai (whose name he proposed in the first instance at the Bonn conference in December 2001 as Afghanistan's interim president) and became one of Karzai's trenchant critics. More importantly, he also shed his legacy as a key player in the anti-Taliban resistance in the 1990s and instead re-invented himself an enthusiastic votary of the Taliban's reconciliation, which fits in with the US and Pakistani thinking.
In comparison, Karzai's running mates Fahim and Khalili who are close to Russia and Iran, remain skeptical of "moderate" Taliban. At a time when the US is pressing ahead with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion and when its containment strategy towards Russia (and China) in the Central Asian region is gaining traction, Washington simply cannot afford an expansion of Russian and Iranian influence in Kabul. There has been a well-planned assassination attempt on Fahim. Fahim evokes strong feelings of antipathy in Islamabad, given his staunch anti-Taliban stance, his military and intelligence background and his networking in regional capitals.
Therefore, a period of extreme volatility lies ahead. To be sure, Karzai refuses to throw in the towel despite the sustained Western media attack on him. This is where the problem arises. Abdullah's camp openly threatens to create an "Iran-like situation" in Kabul if Karzai pulls off victory in the August 20 round. If violence ensues, the Tajik-dominated Afghan security will be hard-pressed to control the situation and foreign forces may need to intervene, which is hugely controversial.
On the other hand, if a runoff becomes necessary, a date needs to be fixed for that, which cannot be earlier than end-October. Meanwhile, the Abdullah-Ghani combine, with tacit encouragement from the US, is bound to challenge the legitimacy of Karzai running a government even after its mandate expires on August 20. But Karzai will most certainly resist any demand on him to step down.
Behind all this looms the grim reality that the Afghan body polity has been hopelessly split on ethnic lines. The election campaign has aggravated the creeping ethnic polarization. Every political issue today takes ethnic overtones. The US should have anticipated this and taken the lead to create a level playing field but instead it narrowly focused on ousting Karzai. Thus, there is no arbiter today - neither the US nor the United Nations or NATO - to ensure that warring contenders will gracefully accept the declared results. The Afghan bazaar seems convinced the US is somehow or the other fixing the outcome of the election according to its priorities.
Meanwhile, the role of Pakistani intelligence remains a dark mystery. For Islamabad, it is a high-stakes game. Ghani enjoys extensive kinship within Pakistan, as a significant portion of Ahmadzais live on the southeastern side of the Durand Line in Waziristan. He and Abdullah were also educated in Pakistan. Whenever Pakistan puts on an air of studied indifference to Afghan developments, as is happening currently, there is reason to worry.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.