Afghan race becomes Karzai's cliffhanger
By M K Bhadrakumar
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.