Real Choice in Afghan Election

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A look at the upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary, author of Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.

I have this recurring nightmare in which my life has gone so wrong, I’ve become the president of Afghanistan. I’m hard put to understand, therefore, why forty people are fighting for this job as if their lives depended on it when in fact their lives might not be worth a plugged nickel if they win; yet that is exactly what is happening in a fascinating presidential election now entering its final weeks in Afghanistan.

Fascinating because it’s the country’s first real presidential election. The media will tell you there was another in 2004, when Hamid Karzai won the post he already held that year, but Karzai was running unopposed that time.  Even though some twenty other names were on the ballot, everyone knew Karzai would win if the election came off at all.  The choice wasn’t Karzai or someone else but election or no-election.  Afghans who went to the polls that year were voting for voting itself, and voting won.

They weren’t choosing among candidates, because few even knew who was running.  Yes, the candidates’ names were written on the ballots but over 75 % of Afghans can’t read.  And even if they had heard of the candidates, few knew what any of them stood for because country had virtually no media beyond rumor then.  To be sure, the candidates tried to communicate something of their views with icons placed next to their names on the ballot, but an icon is a crude slogan. One candidate wanted voters to know he was a conservative fundamentalist who stood four-square on the Qur’an, so he chose, as his icon, a book. Another wanted voters to know he was a progressive who fully backed modern education so he chose as his icon—a book.  You see the problem.

Besides, most “candidates” of 2004 had no political platform at all. With Karzai’s election a foregone conclusion, the only other notables running were ethnic and tribal leaders, who were essentially gangsters with private armies. What each of them stood for was a share of the spoils.

But that was then. Now Karzai has at least two serious opponents, both running credible campaigns.  Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, formerly Karzai’s foreign minister, one-time right-hand man of Tajik war-hero Ahmad Shah Massoud (and an actual doctor—an ophthalmologist, of all things!) has sparked real excitement by traveling around the country making personal appearances, and believe me this guy knows how to heat up a crowd.  In 2002, I saw him give an extemporaneous speech in three languages to a mixed audience in Kabul, switching fluently between Dari, Pushto, and English, fielding questions from a motley audience with charismatic confidence—a brilliant performance. He offers a proposal to restructure the country as a (decentralized) parliamentary democracy. The idea may or may not be a good one, but it is at least an idea.  If I could vote in this election, Abdullah might be my guy.

Or maybe not: Dr. Ashraf Ghani, formerly Karzai’s finance minister, one-time professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, once on a short list to be appointed secretary general of the United Nations, may not be much of a politician, but he has gravitas, he has learning, and he has a proposal: to replace the failed top-down strategy of reconstruction in Afghanistan with a new approach that starts at the local level and filters up.  It might or might not work,  but at least it’s a plan, and it’s one that addresses the most critical piece of the Afghan puzzle. If I could vote in this election, maybe Ghani would be my guy.

Karzai never really had a constituency in Afghanistan. From the start, Afghans saw him as America’s man.  In 2004, that was good enough, because back then, the United States enjoyed some luster among Afghans, many of whom felt the United States had helped drive out the Soviets and later (after shamefully abandoning the country to civil war) saved them from the Taliban.  In voting for Karzai, Afghans were accepting the Western intervention and expressing optimism about what it might bring.

This year, it’s not such a good thing to be seen as America’s man in Afghanistan.  Most Afghans now have about the same view of the American presence as they had of the Soviet occupation in the eighties. This time, therefore, the only actual opposition party of 2004—Talibanist chaos—has come back stronger than ever, its only platform being to sabotage the elections entirely.

Accordingly, Karzai has turned to a different kind of politics:   back-room deal-making with power-brokers.  He opted out of a televised debate with his rivals and hasn’t appeared in public much, but he has been busy: most of those ethnic and tribal warlords who opposed him in 2004 are now his allies. Their motives are the same now as then: to share in the spoils.  They’re lining up with Karzai because they bet that—as America’s man—he’ll still be in power after the election no matter how the vote comes out.

Frankly I can’t blame Karzai for failing to rescue Afghanistan. When a man can’t lift a car, it doesn’t prove he’s weak but rather that cars are heavy.  If one of his rivals wins, I’m sure global media will soon be excoriating him as a weak incompetent presiding over a corrupt administration.

Even so, it would be great if the United States and its Western allies publicly abandon Karzai. It would signal that America means to change course in Afghanistan, and American-changing-course is the only thing that can now reverse Afghanistan’s slide toward chaos.  In this presidential campaign, it could actually profit America to be associated with one of the losers. It might at least open a slim opportunity to launch a fresh approach.  And anyway, when all the warlords of Afghanistan flock to your banner, let’s face it: the time has come to change banners.


Tamim Ansary’s new book, Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes is now in bookstores and is getting glowing reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the book “an indispensable guide.” The Oregonian says it is “vivid, often wrenching.” Visit his website here. More from this author →