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    South Asia
     Nov 3, 2009
Now it's a one-horse race
By Derek Henry Flood

KABUL - Hundreds of men and a handful of women gathered in Kabul's massive loya jirga (grand council) tent on Sunday to hear opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah give his final campaign speech.

Rumors had been circulating the capital and online around the world that Abdullah would gracefully withdraw from the bitterly contested presidential runoff race, effectively ceding the presidency to the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, which is what he did. Abdullah gave an impassioned speech with a sprinkling of melodrama to which the Kabul press corps have become accustomed.

He spoke in Dari and Pashto, and pointedly not in English. His speech was directed at Afghans and not the international community, whose mission seemed more directionless than ever


and seems to have disintegrated in the ashes of last week's attack in the capital which claimed the lives of several United Nations personnel.

Kai Eide, the UN's point man in Kabul, mediated a rendezvous between Karzai and Abdullah in which apparently nothing of substance was achieved. Abdullah described the event as inconclusive as he further ruled out the notion of any form of hoped-for coalition government, which many Afghan intellectuals and savvy locally based international observers believed would be the end result after the disputed August elections.

For those not fluent in either of Afghanistan's major languages in which Abdullah spoke at the one-man jirga, the message was accurately reflected in a despondent Yunnus Qanooni's body language as he sank in his seat, front and center in the audience.

Qanooni, once part of the troika along with Abdullah and Marshal Mohammed Fahim that led the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance after the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud in the autumn of 2001, knew the disappointment and defeat of facing down Karzai better than anyone in the room. Qanooni, currently the speaker of Afghanistan's lower house, the Wolesi Jirga, placed second in the first post-Taliban presidential election in October of 2004 that Karzai won.

In the tense minutes leading up to his grand entrance, Afghan elders poured into the arena, making anxious cell phone calls and appearing tetchy. Abdullah's loyal Panjshiri security men kept a tight cordon. Since mid-summer, Kabul has grown more and more threatened as Taliban attacks steadily increase.

Abdullah exhibited every emotion, from laughing and cajoling with his closest partners to nearly weeping atop the stage as he appeared to realize the consequences of just what he had set in motion.

He told his constituents that he had taken his decision with great pain and had made it for the greater good of the democratic process. In the cavernous tent, once built to signify the hope and reunification of Afghanistan, the stage was set for future discord. In the scrum that followed his exit, many fretted that their candidate had just watered the seeds of chaos.

In the gridlocked push exiting the dusty loya jirga grounds, journalists were immediately summoned back to Abdullah's neatly clipped garden hanging with ripe pomegranates to hear the former candidate explain his decision in English. Arriving at his home for the first time since his fraud allegations began after the initial August 20 vote, one must now negotiate a small warren of freshly poured concrete blast walls, a stark, visible reminder of the recent, very successful Taliban penetration of Kabul's weak security perimeter.

Abdullah told those gathered that his decision was absolutely final and that he had specifically called on his supporters not to take to the streets with outrage and to act on their political frustrations responsibly. Whether Afghanistan's largely unschooled, illiterate electorate would do such is another matter.

"I have told my supporters not to take to the streets, not to feel grief in such a difficult environment," said the former eye surgeon turned central political actor. When asked whether a one-man election in the midst of a steadily escalating war could possibly be viewed as having any degree of legitimacy, Abdullah stated that he preferred not to speculate on "hypothetical situations and scenarios" leading to further uncertainty as to whether the vote will now go ahead at all.

He stated that he had suspended links with the county's embattled Independent Election Commission (IEC), but apparently had not done so in time to halt the very expensive ballot printing or stop the vote boxes from being delivered to provincial centers, all paid for primarily by the United States, North Atlantic Treaty Organization member countries and various European supranational institutional partners which the doctor claims to hold in high esteem for their sacrifices.

The election now appears to have devolved into a ratification of Karzai's apparently weakening writ. Karzai no longer maintains the unconditional support he received after the Bonn conference in December of 2001 when many Afghans from monarchists to mujahideen believed that a new day had dawned on their divided and failed nation-state. Karzai had frittered away all of the goodwill and his once ardent neo-conservative backers in Washington now operate mostly in the shadows of the beltway, powerless to help him.

Abdullah, once an aide to the slain Massoud, Afghanistan's legendary Tajik mujahideen leader, and a man who operated under duress in the background of this country's warrior politics, now stands as the first man at the precipice of an ever-widening chasm in his nation's fitful and very flawed democratic process. "This is not the end of anything, but it is the beginning of something else."
Whatever that "else" proves to be, many Afghans have no choice but to brace for an environment that is becoming progressively nihilistic. For now, the IEC is sending out press releases insisting the polling will proceed as planned, the wheels are in motion, and this time around, they intend to get it right.

While members of the Afghan elite such as Abdullah can reinforce their personal security with hastily placed concrete, sandbags and private militias, the people of Afghanistan, those needed most to make democracy credible, are being left in a more vulnerable place than before the initial campaign season commenced.

No one in Afghanistan's muddy capital seems to know what will happen over the course of this next week. The Barack Obama administration in the United States is now drawn more deeply into the Afghan maelstrom with a planned recalculation of troop levels pending further results of an election, that if still held, may be reduced to a farcical internationalist exercise that damages the credibility of several already shaky democratic experiments across the wider region that are a legacy of the George W Bush administration.

The Americans seem to be at a loss as to how to move forward with the prospect of another five years of Karzai and the perceived corruption of his administration, but it is the Afghans who may be the ultimate losers, as the gravity of this democratic impasse in the heart of Asia has been so poorly understood through the looking glass.

"This is my decision. This decision was made not in exchange for anything or anybody but purely in the interests of the Afghan people. [It was made] to give the people of Afghanistan a chance to move on," Abdullah told reporters. Move on to precisely where he did not say.

Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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