Maybe Afghanistan’s politics is so dysfunctional and broken by war that it’s too much to expect any of it to make sense. But it seems to me that then United Nations is on the wrong side of the current fight to the death between President Karzai and Afghanistan’s parliament.

In case you haven’t been following the news: last year’s parliamentary election was so chaotic and flawed that it resulted in the near-total disenfranchisement of Afghanistan’s Pashtun ethnic minority, which makes up a healthy 40 percent of the population. Many Pashtuns either didn’t vote, because of sympathy or support for the Taliban and dislike of the Afghan government, or couldn’t vote, because of Taliban threats and violence. As a result, in some provinces in the south and east where Pashtuns dominate, not a single Pashtun was elected to parliament. For Karzai, that was a disaster, especially since he’s trying to reach out to his Pashtun base as part of his search for a deal with the Taliban and its allies. Earlier this year, a special court appointed by Karzai ruled that sixty-two members of parliament, mostly non-Pashtuns, were elected fraudulently, a step toward installing Pashtun members in their place. Not surprisingly, Karzai’s opponents in parliament, especially Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who oppose Karzai’s outreach to the Taliban, cried foul, challenged the constitutionality of the court, and demanded the impeachment of Karzai. 

If the war in Afghanistan ever made any sense at all, this stuff makes it clear that it’s close to hopeless. It also underscores the urgent importance of US efforts to find a political settlement that brings both Pashtuns and the Taliban into a deal and which mollifies the non-Pashtun groups that make up the old Northern Alliance, and who are rearming in the north to fight the Taliban if and when a deal begins to emerge.

Yesterday, the two sides actually came to blows in parliament! The government has all but ceased functioning, a constitutional crisis looms, and there are worries about armed factions relaunching the civil war that plagued the country in the early 1990s. It’s that bad. Members of parliament have started carrying guns.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN representative in Afghanistan, is meeting both sides in search of a political accord. But he’s also sided with the anti-Karzai forces. “A court is supposed to find criminals, not to change the outcome of the election,” he said. But that’s wrong. A court is precisely supposed to rule on the propriety of elections, although Karzai’s opponents challenge the validity of this particular court. Meanwhile, at stake is not neat legalities but the very fabric of Afghan politics and society: Will the Pashtuns, and eventually the Taliban, be integrated into Afghan politics, or not?

Needless to say, the more the Pashtuns are excluded and marginalized, the more they will turn to the waiting Taliban. Especially as US forces start to leave.

The parliament not only wants to impeach Karzai, but they’ve voted to fire Afghanistan’s attorney general and as many as six supreme court justices. And the sixty-two MPs whose election has been challenged by the court have refused to leave, making it the attorney general’s decision to enforce the court ruling and oust the MP’s, by force—thus arresting more than one-fourth of the Afghan parliament. 

Stupid and messy, yes. (At least Karzai doesn’t have to deal with cult-like, tax-obsessed Republicans!) There’s lots at stake, including Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan and India, which back opposite sides in the incipient civil war.