An angry and one-sided editorial in the Washington Post today blasts President Karzai of Afghanistan for his supposed "anti-democratic impulses." The editorial was triggered by Karzai's decision this week to postpone seating the new Afghan parliament for one month while he, the courts and Afghanistan's election bodies sort out the fraud changes from the September 18 election. "This parliament should be seated without further delay," harrumphs the hawkish Post, accusing Karzai of acting to "exacerbate tensions…in the non-Pashtun areas where Taliban activity is rising."
But the Post ignores the very real crisis created by the election, which disenfranchises millions of Afghan voters, especially Pashtuns.
Let us stipulate that, for the most part, Afghanistan's parliament is, first of all, a nearly powerless body. Let us further stipulate that the parliament is something of a laughingstock, many of whose members are corrupt wheeler-dealers, warlords, tribal potentates, militia chiefs and so on.
Let us also stipulate that the September 18 election was catastrophically flawed. First of all, more than a quarter of the votes cast, about 1.3 million, have already been thrown out by the election bodies, the controversial Independent Election Commission (IEC), over charges of fraud and corruption. The IEC and a parallel body, the Election Complaints Commission (ECC), collected thousands of challenges to the results.
Even worse, because the election was held under wartime conditions, in which going to the polls was tantamount to suicide in some districts, millions of Afghans couldn't or didn't vote. That hugely skewed the results, disenfranchising many Pashtuns. Not only do the Pashtuns make up nearly half of Afghanistan's population, but the Taliban and its allies draw strong support from conservative and tribal Pashtun groups. So getting the Pashtuns madder than they already are will drive even more of them to take up arms and join the Taliban.
Case in point: Ghazni province. Ghazni is heavily populated by Pashtuns, and it's a key battleground in the war. But, because voters stayed away from the polls in Pashtun areas—where many polls didn't even open—the Hazaras, a Shiite minority, swept all eleven seats in the province, and Pashtuns got none. In some parts of Ghazni the election was laughable: for instance, in the overwhelmingly Pashtun district of Andar, out of a population of more than 100,000 Pashtuns, more than 70,000 were registered to vote—and only three votes were cast. Needless to say, losing candidates, especially Pashtuns, howled in protest, and some threatened worse. Already, angry Pashtun tribal forces blockaded the road from Kabul, the capital, to Khost, an important provincial capital. A Ghazni politician, Daoud Sultanzai, who was disqualified in the election, said: "We are trying to calm our followers, but if they don't get justice many of them will turn to violence. It is not a question of joining the Taliban. Our followers are the majority. The Taliban will join them."
In all, the Pashtuns' representation in the 249-member parliament declined from a respectable 120 seats to just 94.
Karzai, who's launched a major effort to talk to the Taliban, has lost much support among the non-Pashtun population in the north and west that originally were his strongest supporters. The ethnic groups whose militias comprised the old, anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, have turned against Karzai, and he's sought to bolster his Pashtun base. By challenging the election results, Karzai is trying to placate the Pashtuns, at the risk of riling up other segments of the population. It's a difficult balancing act, and that's why the one-sided Post editorial misses the point.
Since the election, Karzai has clearly favored the Pashtuns and the losing candidates. To mollify them, Karzai disparaged the election itself, and the authorities arrested all seven IEC commissioners, several staffers and all three Afghan members of the ECC. Then, defying the newly elected parliamentarians, much of the Afghan establishment and the United States, Karzai appointed a special court, backed by the Supreme Court, with a panel of five judges who conducted an ersatz review of the election. After much suspense, this week the court reached its foregone and clearly prearranged conclusion, asking Karzai to delay seating the new parliament. Strongly supported by Mohammad Ishaq Aloko, the former intelligence officer under Prince Mohammad Daoud in the 1970s who is now Afghanistan's attorney general, Karzai did just that. And despite his declaration that the delay is for one month only, it isn't clear when, or if, the new members will ever take office. Needless to add, the special court's decision was denounced by many Afghans, including the newly elected, and the spokesman for the ECC said bluntly, "The special court is totally illegal." Karzai's actions may, indeed, be "anti-democratic," but there isn't much about Afghanistan that is democratic these days, and it's a sorry sign that America can't blunder around the world installing democracy here and there.
But in postponing the inauguration of parliament, Karzai may have created conditions that could ignited a revolt among his former allies in the Northern Alliance, especially if winning candidates are barred from taking office. Meanwhile, members of the winning side from the September 18 vote are threatening to convene the new parliament anyway, without Karzai's support, which could create a frontal challenge to the president and one that could lead directly to civil war. Some analysts are already predicting exactly that—because many members of the old Northern Alliance coalition are already wary of Karzai's offer to reconcile with the Taliban, and there are widespread reports that the Northern Alliance's militia is rearming, with covert support from India and the Central Asian republics to the north. Iran, too, which strongly supports the Shiite Hazara, has cards to play. In and around Herat, in western Afghanistan, Iran has built roads, an electrical grid, industrial parks, sparkling new mosques and more, and Tehran will balance its support for Karzai with a campaign to assert its own interests, especially in defiance of the United States. Now Karzai may backpedal and try to compromise with the non-Pashtun body politic, but juggling all that won't be easy—especially if his overture to the Taliban begins to bear fruit. Since last summer, Karzai has tilted toward closer relations with Pakistan and its intelligence service, the ISI, because he believes that Pakistan can deliver the Taliban and its allies to the bargaining table.
The United States now finds its plans to drawdown its forces and turn security over to the Afghans by 2014 even more complicated. If the Afghan government, floundering as it is, falls apart, President Obama can forget about having a competent Afghan military to replace US and NATO forces. In fact, the Afghan National Army could splinter and itself fall apart, along ethnic lines. The only practical solution, as the United States leaves, is to launch a major diplomatic effort to rebalance the Afghan government, while negotiating a political settlement with the Taliban and its allies, the Haqqani forces and Hekmatyar's group. That would entail bribing, cajoling and persuading Pakistan to bring the Taliban-Haqqani-Hekmatyar bloc to the table, while getting India, Iran and Russia—who support the anti-Taliban alliance—to herd their allies into the deal, too. China and Saudi Arabia, which are close to Pakistan, need to be asked to back Pakistan's effort in peace talks.