Wizards and wives drive Afghan election
By M K Bhadrakumar
Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the "modern face" of Afghanistan, is a rare finished
product to emerge out of the jihad of the 1980s - a handsome, nattily attired,
English-speaking mujahideen spokesman who could evocatively bring to the
Western drawing rooms the danger and the thrill of the Hindu Kush.
Slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud wouldn't think of losing him
as his media manager and interpreter. Anyone who shook Abdullah's soft hands
will at once discover he never held a Kalashnikov, although he would speak with
great elan about the life and times of the mujahideen. That places
Abdullah in a unique position to claim mujahideen pedigree, yet avoid being
branded a "warlord".
There could be no better "mujahid" than him today to propagate
the United States campaign against President Hamid Karzai. If Abdullah succeeds
in deconstructing Karzai's alliance with the mujahideen "warlords" and forces
the obdurate president into a runoff, that will surely be his finest hour.
However, Abdullah has a fight on his hands. Karzai, who is popularly known
among Afghans as the "wizard" for his skills to politically outmaneuver
opponents, won't abdicate. With official figures from 35% of the polling
stations now in, The Associated Press has Karzai leading with 46.2% of the
votes and Abdullah with 31.4%. Karzai must win over half the votes to avoid a
As days pass, the standoff gets messier and messier. The denouement - which can
only come when the final vote count is released on September 17 - is certain to
leave a lot of debris.
So far, Karzai has had the last laugh. Contrary to the prognosis by US experts
that the presidential elections would sharpen the Afghan ethnic divide and that
a Karzai election would throw up a "backlash" in the Pashtun-majority areas,
nothing of the sort is happening. The Pashtuns have rejected Ashraf Ghani,
former World Bank official and America's favorite candidate.
Despite being a blue-blooded Ahmadzai, one of the biggest tribes in eastern
Afghanistan, the returns from Nangarhar show Pashtuns disfavor Ghani, though
there exists probably an anti-Karzai Pashtun sentiment waiting to be tapped. In
other words, Americans played the ethnic Pashtun card and it didn't work.
The US now will have to insert Ghani laterally into the power structure in a
regime headed by Abdullah. But any such surgical strike necessitates a runoff,
whereas Karzai is coasting toward victory.
What complicated the US plan was that the "wizard" fared far better than
Washington estimated in the non-Pashtun regions where Abdullah was thought to
have an "edge" by virtue of being half-Tajik. Karzai literally caught
Washington unawares by getting Rashid Dostum to return from Turkey in the nick
of time to garner his 10% Uzbek vote bank for Karzai, which proved decisive.
(Dostum has since returned to Turkey so that the US cannot make an issue of his
presence to vilify Karzai.)
Again, the "wizard" was spot-on when he drafted Tajik leader Mohammed Fahim and
Hazara Shi'ite leader Karim Khalili as his vice presidential nominees.
Available results from northern and central provinces (Takhar, Badakhshan,
Kunduz, Baghlan, Balkh, Jowzjan, Sar-e-Pol, Bamyan, Parwan and Kabul) indicate
Abdullah trailing Karzai by 10%. Abdullah's performance has been outstanding
only in his native Panjshir province, where he secured 87% of the vote, and in
nearby Parwan province, where he polled 63%.
Karzai's mandate needs to be seen as cross-ethnic, as Abdullah too had fielded
an ethnic Hazara, Charagh Ali Charagh, and an ethnic Pashtun, Humayoon Wasefi,
as his running mates. It is obvious that Fahim swung huge Tajik support for
Karzai, while Khalili (and Mohammed Mohaqiq) won Hazara support for Karzai,
even as Dostum delivered Uzbek votes. (In the 2004 election, Dostum polled 11%
of the vote as a candidate.)
Thus, all-in-all, Karzai's spider-like web of alliances with "warlords" in the
northern, northwestern and central provinces proved no match for Abdullah.
Evidently, what toppled the US apple cart was Washington's over-estimation of
the "Pashtun base" of Ghani and the "Tajik base" of Abdullah. Some heads should
roll in AfPak special representative Richard Holbrooke's team.
The US erred in assuming that with his urbane World Bank background, Ghani
would prove irresistible to alienated Pashtuns. On the contrary, Pashtuns
resent well-heeled Afghans who stay away to pursue careers in Western capitals
and in any case, they reject anyone they think is being imposed on them by
Jeffrey Stern, whose dispatch from Jalalabad appeared in Slate magazine, wrote:
[Ghani's] reputation as an academic, technocrat and reformer is close to
sterling, but his international appeal plays to a narrative Afghans are
programmed to reject. In a country that has been a stepping-stone for empires
and a chessboard for foreign interests, politicians with external ties are to
be watched closely. On the streets of Kabul, I have variously heard Ghani
dismissed as "not Afghan"; a "foreigner"; and, most charitably, "an
intellectual, yes, but not presidential". By default, his extended furlogh in
the West has relegated him to the political purgatory Afghans devise colorful
names to describe: Zana-e-Bush, literally "Bush's wives"; or sag-shuyan,
"dog washers," for the lowly vocations the privileged classes surely filled
Again, Abdullah effectively capitalized on his
association with Massoud ("Lion of the Panjshir"), but that's his optimal
performance. Abdullah hasn't offered any program, nor has he a record to prove
he can do better than Karzai or is capable of the political reach to get a
pan-Afghan mandate to lead his country.
Unlike Ghani, however, Abdullah's Afghan-ness may be hard to question. Most
important, Abdullah's appeal among Panjshiris is proven. True, Mohammed Atta,
the "warlord"-governor of Balkh (who is a rival of Dostum) supports Abdullah.
Therefore, if somehow all "anti-Karzai" votes coalesce around him, and if
Dostum can be forced to stay away, all is not lost and Abdullah can still give
Karzai a run for his money in a runoff.
At least, that's what Holbrooke and his team think. However, for that to
happen, a runoff is needed. As things stand, the results are still expected
from western and southern Afghanistan. Abdullah will fare poorly in these
regions. Ismail Khan, the legendary "warlord" known as the "amir" of western
Afghanistan, backs Karzai to the hilt. As regards southern provinces, they are
Karzai's native turf. And the Kandahari tribes are notoriously parochial.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Washington has reached the conclusion that the only
way left to stop Karzai from snatching victory will be by making the election
process controversial. Washington has abruptly backed away from what President
Barack Obama hailed as "this historic election". The emphasis is on running
down the election process and to "delegitimize" the result. Every word spoken
by Abdullah goes to build up a case to annul the election result.
The US is pinning hopes on the so-called Election Complaints Commission (ECC),
which is stacked with its nominees, to decide "how substantive the election
fraud was" - to quote New York Times. The ECC is a body appointed by the United
Nations, but that's a fig leaf - just as the US-led foreign troops in
Afghanistan operate under UN mandate. Given the ECC's composition, it will not
disregard Abdullah's complaints.
A flashpoint could arise within the coming fortnight when the Independent
Election Commission (IEC), an Afghan body, might declare Karzai as the outright
winner and the ECC, which is dominated by the US, annuls the result on account
of Abdullah's allegations. The US intention is to supersede the IEC and conduct
the runoff under the supervision of the "international community" and the UN -
that is, return to the 2004 mode and proceed to declare that "democracy" won in
Afghanistan, while fixing the election result to ensure the Abdullah-Ghani
tandem comes to power.
This is smart thinking. The bottom line is that the Obama administration cannot
brook a Karzai victory. It is a moot point whether or not Karzai gave a
dressing down to Holbrooke and the latter walked out of last week's
presidential lunch in Kabul. When the two sides floated different versions -
with Kabul sources maintaining Karzai put Holbrooke on the mat and Washington
clarifying "no one shouted, no one walked out" - what emerges is that the
Obama-Karzai dalliance is all but over.
Helene Cooper of the New York Times wrote, "Whatever the case [of the lunch],
the atmosphere may now have become so poisoned between the United States and Mr
Karzai that the Obama administration will be hampered no matter what course it
takes." The Sunday Times commented that the "fiery" lunch meeting "appears to
have plunged American-Afghan relations to a post-Taliban low". The newspaper
reported that Holbrooke would be meeting his British, French and German
counterparts in Paris on Wednesday and according to an unnamed French official,
"Holbrooke wanted a run-off in order to chasten Karzai and show him his power
But time is running out. The top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley
McChrystal, is expected to deliver his assessment of the Afghan situation to
Obama some time this week. McChrystal is laying the groundwork for a request
for more US troops. Meanwhile, the continuing political stalemate in Kabul
means the Afghan government is not on board for such a crucial phase of the
Ironically, it was left to Lord "Paddy" Ashdown, who almost took up Holbrooke's
job as the point-person for the Western alliance in Kabul, to point out in an
interview with the BBC on Friday that any American effort to "delegitimize" the
Afghan elections means that the "capacity of our effort to win back the Pashtun
tribes from the Taliban is lessened. And the people who are likely to benefit
the most will be the Taliban themselves." Ashdown added:
line of our failure in Afghanistan, and we must be prepared to look failure in
the face now, did not lie in the inadequacies of Karzai. It lies in our
complete inability in the international community to get our act together and
to speak with a single voice; to have a clear plan ... and a clear set of
priorities. If we want to put a finger at the failure in Afghanistan, then we
should point at ourselves [rather] than at President Karzai.
insists he is the rightful winner of the Afghan presidential elections and he
isn't prepared to face a runoff to satisfy American demands. And the mujahideen
"warlords" are backing Karzai. In such a situation, if the Obama administration
forces the issue, the great danger is that an altogether new political dynamic
will emerge, compounding the already existing challenge of a full-fledged
Most certainly, an Abdullah-Ghani tandem cannot hold Afghanistan together. The
two "technocrats" may be good in their respective fields of expertise - media
management and developmental economics. But they are not men of destiny who can
lead from the barricades when the enemy is at the gates. The Obama
administration must show the sagacity to cooperate with Karzai's strategy to
involve the conventional power groups since no one else has the power today to
control the Afghan system and preside over the fragmented polity and at the
same time carry on with the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Dangerous times lie ahead. The Obama administration should know that assuming
Holbrooke has his way to "chasten" Karzai, the Afghan president would be worth
nothing. The Afghans will nickname Abdullah and Ghani as Zana-e-Obama -
"Obama's wives" - and how does that help McChrystal's war strategy?
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.