Friday, September 24, 2004

# Posted 3:54 AM by Patrick Belton  

THE ALL-IMPORTANT ELECTIONS: In Afghanistan, not the United States. Our swashbuckling Afghan correspondent delves into admirable detail:
A quick update on the imminent elections – the October ones, not the November ones. The last few months have been a thrilling and astonishing time for Afghanistan. A Karzai victory remains the most likely outcome on October 9, but the implications of that victory look rather different now than they did at the beginning of the year.

First: the clear losers of this election are the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and rebels against the Kabul government. With just over two weeks remaining before the Afghan presidential elections, the malcontents have already lost. For months, they have threatened to create a generalized atmosphere of fear in which no one would dare go to the polls. It is safe to say that they have failed. They failed to prevent mass voter registration; the murders of many brave election workers did not deter millions of Afghans from registering for the vote (some more than once, but that’s another story). The handful of explosions and attacks that the Afghan insurgents have managed in the last few weeks are pitiful in comparison to (say) the daily uproar in Iraq. And they have run out of time. Whatever atrocities they manage to commit in the coming days, it is hard to imagine anything dramatic enough to deter more than a handful of likely voters. Another bomb or two before October 9 is not going to do the trick. The insurgents simply cannot affect enough of the country to manage widespread voter intimidation.

By contrast, President Hamid Karzai has been breathtakingly aggressive and effective over the last two months. On July 7, I wrote that the most powerful man in the Kabul government was widely perceived to be Defense Minister Fahim, the chief Panjshiri Tajik warlord. I argued that the central government was stronger than it was given credit for – that it had in fact been expanding its power in the face of various regional warlords – but that its achievements strengthened Marshal Fahim and the Panjshiris, not Karzai and his technocrats.

How much can change in a few weeks. On July 26, at the last minute before declaring his candidacy, Karzai dramatically broke with Fahim and dropped him from his Vice Presidential slot. He replaced Fahim with Ahmad Zia Massoud, ambassador to Russia and brother of the late Panjshiri hero Ahmad Shah Massoud – probably the only Tajik who for sheer symbolic value comes close to matching Fahim as an electoral asset. (It also helps that Massoud is reportedly backed by former President Rabbani, who retains a considerable political base among northeastern Tajiks). Kabul braced for a confrontation, as troops supportive of Fahim gathered in the streets of the capital. But NATO, forewarned by Karzai, also had tanks in the streets to deter the Defense Minister’s loyalists from any rash action. Fahim merely stated that he was disappointed and would support his Northern Alliance comrade, Education Minister Yunus Qanuni, in his hastily-declared candidacy for President.

The message of the demotion was clear: Karzai intends to run a government that is not beholden to any of the major warlords. (Or rather, a government beholden to Zalmay Khalilzad, American ambassador and arguably the country’s foremost warlord). Karzai then proceeded to directly challenge the most recalcitrant and independent regional governor, Ismael Khan of the western province of Herat. Here again, he replaced a hero of the jihad with a civilian former ambassador (Khairkawa, former envoy to Iran and Ukraine). And so far, this move also appears to be successful.

If you’d asked me back in July which warlord Karzai should take by the horns, I certainly wouldn’t have recommended Ismael Khan. Khan has kept the Kabul government at arm’s length since the fall of the Taliban, building an autonomous western fief with Iranian support. He only reluctantly yielded to Karzai a share of the customs income from Afghanistan’s border posts with Iran and Turkmenistan. He’s prickly, has a loyal following in Herat, and was one of the warlords least receptive to the disarmament process. Of all the regional commanders, I would have judged Ismael Khan one of the most likely to resist his demotion by all means, up to and including armed force.

However, he was genuinely weakened by a bout of fighting in Herat province in August. He was attacked by a rival warlord, Amanullah, who rallied the ethnic Pashtuns of southern Herat and marched on the provincial capital. In the past, Amanullah has demanded that a Pashtun-majority province be carved out of Herat; his assault on Ismael Khan reportedly had the support of at least one or two Pashtun ministers in Kabul, along with the governor of neighboring Ghor province. Karzai and the Americans condemned the attack, negotiated a truce, and flew in a couple of Afghan National Army battalions to keep the peace.

At this point, Karzai determined to remove both battling warlords from the picture. Amanullah was whisked off to Kabul and quietly placed under house arrest. And on September 11, Karzai “promoted” Ismael Khan to lead the national Ministry of Mines and Industry – a mild insult to a man who had previously been offered a Vice Presidency and the Interior Ministry. Ismael Khan accepted his replacement as governor of Herat, but declined the ministerial position, stating that he was not qualified and preferred to stay in his home city to serve the people.

As news of his dismissal spread, riots ensued and several NGO offices in Herat were burned down. I heard a harrowing story from an expat who worked at the UN office in Herat; he spent September 12 in hiding, moving from cellar to cellar one step ahead of the mob, and finally escaped with only his passport, digital camera, and the clothes on his back. Yet though the riots were terrifying at first hand, they did not amount to any sort of armed rebellion against the new governor. Peace was quickly restored, and has been holding up for the last couple weeks. Governor Khairkawa has stated that genuine disarmament of all militias in the province will be his top priority (for his own good, it had better be). Ismael Khan has suggested that after the election, he might accept a Kabul ministerial post if offered one for which he is qualified. It seems entirely possible that Karzai will succeed in moving one of the toughest warlords into retirement.

And so we come to the election. Some chaos and ballot-rigging can be expected from local commanders (both loyal to and opposed to Karzai), and there are probably more voter registration cards than voters floating around out there, but hopefully not enough to invalidate the overall result. First votes are always sloppy, especially in post-conflict areas, but the practice of democracy has to begin somewhere. As for the likely outcome, Charney Research carried out a remarkable Afghan national poll this spring which should be required reading for amateur Afghanistan psephologists. Methodologically, it’s as solid as one could hope for (their sample was actually gender-representative, 50-50). It suggests that Hamid Karzai is popular throughout the country, not just in Pashtun-majority areas. Outside the south and Herat, he’s extraordinarily well-liked. The jihadi leaders (warlords) are far less popular – only in Panjshir, where they benefit from the aura of the martyred Massoud, are they at all well-regarded. Afghans plan to vote in great numbers, and expect the vote to make a difference. The majority of women expect to vote, and are even more favorably inclined toward Karzai than are the men. Nothing is certain, but a Karzai victory (always likely) is by far the most probable outcome next month.

What then? Though I can’t help cheering the extraordinary daring, speed, and skill with which Karzai has taken on the warlords over the last few months, I’m still concerned by the Kabul government’s drive to centralize power. Back in July I wrote that removing Fahim as Defense Minister and expanding the disarmament program “are important steps no matter what; but I fear that if they are carried out without also giving more power to the regions, they will only convince every warlord that they have to control Kabul in order to survive.” Much will depend on what alternatives the victorious Karzai ends up offering warlords like Fahim and Ismael Khan. These men could still render their regions of the country ungovernable if they do not consider cooperation with Kabul worthwhile. And if more of the regional warlords began to resist the government, we would quickly feel the inadequacy of the troop numbers which America and its allies have thus far committed to Afghanistan.

But the political skill demonstrated by Karzai since July, and the popularity he clearly possesses, are reason for optimism. Afghans themselves are optimistic. The country has passed its major political challenges reasonably well since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 – forming a transitional cabinet, drafting and approving a constitution, maintaining a steady civilian government in Kabul. The next milestone, Afghanistan’s first free presidential election in over a decade, also looks to be a qualified success. For now, that’s quite an achievement.

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