Having a presidential election in Afghanistan is sort of like trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again—that is, if every piece of the eggshell were trying to kill all the other pieces. Thirteen years after the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan is no closer to being a unified country than it was back then, after a decade of war during the Soviet period, the civil war that followed and finally the conquest by the Taliban.
Nevertheless, Afghanistan votes on April 5.
The chief American concern, of course, is the election of a president who’ll sign the much-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, allowing a contingent of US forces to remain in-country past the end of 2014. President Hamid Karzai, after dithering, shocked Washington last year by saying he won’t sign it. Now, the chances that the next president will sign it are high, since every candidate says that he will. Still, once elected, that could change, and it isn’t clear what conditions the Afghans might place on the accord. Last month, President Obama warned Karzai—and, through him, the other candidates—that he ain’t fooling when he says the United States might pull every last soldier out. According to the White House, in a phone call with Karzai, Obama also said that the door is still open for Karzai’s successor to sign on the dotted line:
President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning. Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014. At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan. Therefore, we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year.
But Obama couldn’t have been encouraged by the fact that Karzai said that he supports the Russian takeover of Crimea in Ukraine. Interestingly, Russia is showing great interest in Afghanistan these days, and The Washington Post recently surveyed the scene. It reports:
The Russian government has compiled a list of 140 Soviet-era projects that it would like to rehabilitate, according to the embassy. The Kabul Housebuilding Factory, the country’s largest manufacturing facility, was the first to receive assistance last fall: $25 million in new equipment. A few miles away in Kabul, the Russian government is spending $20 million to renovate the Soviet House of Science and Culture, constructed in 1982.
Whoever emerges from the rubble of the election—after the massive fraud, after the ballot-box violence and Taliban attacks, after the corrupt vote-buying and warlord-controlled ethnic-bloc votes—may not matter too much, since Afghanistan will still be basket-case poor, bitterly divided, with its regions controlled by the same warlords who’ve been fighting each other since the late 1980s. None of the candidates can afford not to sign the BSA, in the end, since along with it comes $4 billion or more in aid to the Afghan national security forces—without which they wouldn't exist for long.
Among the candidates, the three main contenders are Zalmay Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. Rassoul, a Pashtun, is backed by Karzai and his powerful brothers, including Qayum Karzai, who quit the race himself to throw his support to Rassoul. He’s a French-educated doctor who once worked as the chief of the ex-king’s office in Rome before 2001, and his running mates include Ahmed Zia Massoud, the brother of the slain leader of the Northern Alliance, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda on the eve of 9/11. The presence of Massoud, a Tajik, on the ticket is designed to win Tajik votes in the north of Afghanistan.
Abdullah, who is part Pashtun and part Tajik, is closely identified with the Tajik-led Northern Alliance, too, since he was close to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the assassinated leader. Abdullah was the runner-up in the 2009 election, losing to Karzai but still winning nearly 31 percent of the vote. He’s especially backed by other Tajik warlords and tribal chieftains.
Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, got less than 3 percent of the vote in 2009. He’s a Pashtun, too, but from a different subgroup of Pashtuns than the Karzai clan. What sets him apart this year is that his running mate is the notorious warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a general who has been blamed for countless murders. Dostum is an Uzbek, and he’s extremely powerful in the north among Uzbeks.
The New York Times, in a pre-election piece, notes that all three chief candidates are campaigning heavily in Afghanistan’s north, partly because it’s safer there. (That means that voters can get to the polls with a smaller likelihood that they’ll be killed in the process.) In 2009, the Times notes, more votes were cast in the north than anywhere else in Afghanistan, so it’s the place to be if you’re a candidate. But the problem is, most of Afghanistan is Pashtun, and most Pashtuns live in the south and the east, especially around Kandahar, the old Taliban capital. That whole part of the country is seething, and the Taliban is still very strong, in the countryside in particular. Because Pashtuns don’t always vote, since the first election in Afghanistan after 2001 the vote has always been skewed against them, in Parliament especially, where the Pashtuns have been ill-represented all along. (They’re also poorly represented among the army’s officer corps.) Partly as a result, and partly because of Taliban resistance, there’s a great deal of violence in Kandahar and environs: last week, the Taliban killed Kandahar’s governor’s chief of staff and wounded the deputy governor.
Still, Pashtuns make up about 42 percent of the Afghan population, and Tajiks just 27 percent. So, even if many Pashtuns don’t vote—or, alternately, if Pashtun tribal chiefs simply stuff ballot boxes in the south—the Rassoul-Karzai alliance seems to have the upper hand, especially if there’s a runoff vote between, say, Rassoul and Abdullah, the most likely outcome. In any case, it’s hardly a formula for national reconciliation.
The widespread violence and chaos has sent many international observers and election monitors fleeing, making the election even more suspect. The American groups, such as the National Democratic Institute, pulled up stakes after one of its people was killed in a blatant attack on a major Kabul hotel, and the International Republican Institute hasn’t even bothered to become involved. Democracy International has also reduced its role because of the violence. According to The Guardian, even the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has withdrawn its contingent.
According to the Times, the main compound of Afghanistan’s own election commission—which has been under attack—“is in total lockdown, and we have moved our staff to bunkers and safe houses,” a spokesman said.
As the US withdrawal accelerates, there’s a big problem: what to do with billions of dollars worth of military equipment that’s too expensive to ship back home? It turns out that the Pentagon has decided that the Afghan army, which might want the materiel, can’t handle it, since it’s too disorganized and underfunded. (Over the past dozen years, huge quantities of military equipment have been supplied to the Afghan armed forces—your tax dollars at work—including “more than $53 billion in equipment and support, 160 aircraft, 100,000 vehicles, 500,000 weapons and 200,000 pieces of communications and night-vision equipment.”) So, now the United States is offering it free to any country that’ll take it, presumably Russia excepted. There’s at least $7 billion worth, including 1,600 MRAPs, those mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that weigh 40 tons each. It’s been reported that the United States might hand them over to Pakistan, a report since denied. If the US does give them to Pakistan, it could mean that Pakistan will hand them over to Taliban commanders, who’ll be riding them back into the Afghan fight next year. Given how the United States has bungled the war since 2001, that would be a fitting, if ironic, coda.