Global Policy Forum

Ballots in Battlefields


The Afghan Election

By Farooq Sulehria*

October 31, 2004

Hamid Karzai has won the election. That was hardly any surprise. However, the high turn out (69%) was a surprise indeed. And a pleasant one. With 97 percent of the votes counted, Karzai with 55 percent of the votes was an outright winner. Had any candidate not obtained a majority, the top two would have competed in a run-off election, as in France. But none of Karzai's 14 rivals, as was expected, posed any serious challenge. The main challenger and runner up, Younas Qanooni, a Northern Alliance leader and an ethnic Tajik, could hardly secure 16 percent, while the Hazara warlord Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq and the notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum got 11 per cent and 10 percent, respectively. Masooda Bano, the only woman candidate in the Afghan presidential elections -- thus attracting a lot of media attention -- secured a little over one percent. Besides Bano, there was also a woman candidate for vice-president: Shafiqa Habibi. A newscaster by profession, Habibi was nominated as one of the two vice-presidential candidates by Dostum.

The unexpectedly high turn out was in the first place a blow to the Taliban. The female turn out in particular is indicative of how women have asserted themselves by rejecting Talibanization. The 40 percent female turn out as against 60 percent for men sounds low. But in the Afghan context, it was surprisingly high. Especially encouraging was the fact that in Faryab, Daikundi, and Noristan provinces, women voters outnumbered men. In Herat and Paktia, the female turn out was also close to 50 percent. Herat is particularly important, for here the "police" of another warlord, Ismail Khan, were subjecting women to infamous chastity tests.

However, the big turn out and landslide victory for Karzai is, paradoxically, in no way a support for Karzai's politics of U.S. bootlicking. Karzai was initially recruited by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence for the Afghan National Liberation Front (ANLF) in 1982. The ANLF was a CIA-ISI project to co-ordinate 'jihad' activities. Son of a Kandahar-based Karzai tribe, Karzai since has been in the service of the CIA. Karzai lent help even to the Taliban, by supplying it with arms when it seized control of Kabul. The USA imposed him as an interim president in violation of the Loya Jirga (the Grand Assembly of the Afghan tribal structure). Being a U.S. choice and an old CIA agent, he was quite unpopular, because the USA is hated in Afghanistan, as in the rest of the Muslim world. The Afghan people want to see U.S. troops leave as soon as possible. But by voting for Karzai, Afghans have voted against the warlords of all hues. Karzai was seen as a lesser evil. At least he had not been running a militia and committing atrocities, looting, and plundering like other candidates.

In addition, many voted for Karzai in the hope of peace. With the presence of ISAF (international) and U.S. troops, and with the creation of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan police, the law and order situation has improved at least in Kabul and a few other big towns. The construction of the Kabul-Kandahar highway has also generated illusions that a continuation of the Karzai regime might lead to badly needed re-construction. Above all, it was a vote to reject warlordism. Although the runners-up, all notorious warlords, also managed to garner a big chunk of votes, their votes remained limited to their fiefdoms. Guns, money, and ethnicity, all played a role in securing votes for the warlords. Ethnically-Hazara Haji Muhammad Mohaqiq, for instance, not only exploited his Hazaraism but also Shia sectarianism. Hazaras are predominantly Shia tribes. They particularly suffered under the Taliban (mainly Pashtuns) with its Wahhabi-like mindset. Thus a warlord like Mohaqiq managed to secure almost 11 per cent of the votes.

As a matter of fact, ethnicity has always played a pivotal role in Afghan politics. Even the PDPA 'communists' could not overcome this division. The ethnic make up of the country is: Pashtun 44%, Tajik 25%, Hazara 10%, Uzbek 8%, and minor ethnic groups (Aimaks, Turkmen, Baloch, and others) 13%. The multi-colored map issued by the Afghan Election Commission graphically showing the election results mirrors the ethnic-oriented voting patterns. West of Mazar-e-Sharif, three provinces are blue for Dostum and east of Mazar-e-Sharif is green for Younas Qanooni. Similarly, the three provinces in central Afghanistan inhibited by Hazara tribes, overwhelmingly voted for Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq. The rest of the map is brown showing Karzai's majority. The pattern was evident even in Pakistan and Iran where Karzai's support among refugees was 80 per cent and 44 per cent respectively. Pakistan houses mostly ethnically Pashtun immigrants.

The enthusiastic turn out and landslide for Karzai not only shows Afghans' frustration with warlordism, it was also a question of lacking any alternative. The 25-year-long civil war has impoverished and disempowered the Afghan masses and civil society. The tribal structure, political parties, trade unions, student unions -- in short every component of civil society -- has been torn apart in the last quarter century. Majma-e-Milli Afghanistan (National Assembly of Afghanistan), a coalition of over a hundred nationalist, secular political groups, for instance, also lent support to Karzai, despite all their criticism of him, in order to block a Northern Alliance victory. The Afghan left, on the other hand, was too weak to present a candidate. Left groups were unable to form any sort of united front to present a joint candidate. The remnants of the old Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), the Maoist Sazman-e-Reyahi Afghanistan (Afghan Liberation Organization - ALO), and SAMA (Sazman-e-Azadibaksh Mardam-e-Afghanistan), all are in the process of re-organization. The lack of guns and money also hinders left activity in today's militarized Afghan politics. Different left groups lent support to different candidates. Most of the left, however, gave critical support to Karzai.

Says ALO spokesman Tahir Khan: "None of the candidates were desirable for us, but since in the present situation the people's struggle is centered against fundamentalism and most people were afraid that once again a fundamentalist person might come to power and therefore preferred Karzai among all other candidates. Considering the lack of an independent and democratic candidate and preferring the worse than the worst, the Afghanistan Liberation Organization also favored Karzai." He adds: "But this favor certainly doesn't mean that we have forgotten that Karzai is also dependent on the U.S. and therefore long struggle against him and exposing him will remain as an important issue. Also we will never let this preference cost us our independence as an organization with specific ideology and goals. This can only be considered as a tactic in this particular situation in our country." "It is a historic tragedy that the left has to lend support to Karzai," says Arif Afghani. Arif is a leader of Hizb-e-Hambastagi Afghanistan (Afghan Solidarity Party), a component of the National Assembly of Afghanistan.

Behind the scenes, the U.S. Ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, may have been the busiest person in Afghanistan during the election campaign. A former consultant to the U.S. oil firm UNOCAL, Khalilzad's first tried to persuade Karzai's electoral rivals to withdraw from the race. In his bid to remove any obstacles to Karzai's election, Khalilzad met with so many candidates and potential candidates to "persuade" them to withdraw that warlords from the Northern Alliance met in late September to discuss how to respond to Khalilzad's "arm-twisting," according to the Los Angeles Times. Khalilzad would begin with friendly offers of road-building or ministerial posts, but if that didn't work, he'd turn to more "muscular" measures. "He told me to drop out of the elections, but not in a way to put pressure," said presidential contender Mohammed Mohaqiq. "It was like a request." But when Mohaqiq -- whose demands for governorships and cabinet positions weren't met--insisted on running, Khalilzad "left, and then called my most loyal men, and the most educated people in my party or campaign and told them to make me -- or request me -- to resign the nomination," Mohaqiq said. "It's not only me. They have been doing the same thing with all candidates. That is why all people think that not only Khalilzad is like this, but also the whole U.S. government is the same. They all want Karzai--and this election is just a show." Despite Khalilzad's, efforts, however, only two candidates withdrew.

The next problem for Khalilzad and Karzai was that all fourteen of Karzai's rivals declared a boycott of the election, which would have cast a shadow over these first-ever Afghan presidential elections. However, Khalilzad managed to woo all fourteen back into the electoral arena. The basis of the boycott was charges of rigging. The charges were not baseless, but the very candidates denouncing the rigging were themselves doing the same thing. All the powerful warlords either bought votes or coerced people in their fiefdoms to vote for them. "Qanooni's men were standing outside polling stations for immigrants in Pakistan with dollars in their hands to buy votes", says Sahar Saba, a leading member of the feminist Afghan group, Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association (RAWA). And there were plenty of votes on sale.

United Nations election officials, prior to the elections, scrambled to explain why more than 9.9 million voter cards had been issued, given that they had originally estimated 9.8 million voters. One example of gross disparity occurred in the province of Panjshir, where more than 124,000 voting cards were issued, compared to an original voter estimate of 49,573. The explanation was simple: the voters' lists were fake. "We know that multiple registration has happened," UN spokesperson Manoel de Almeida e Silva confessed. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai acknowledged that perhaps 1,000 to 100,000 people had more than one voting card. But Karzai is a political intellectual par excellence. Instead of being apologetic for this grave mishandling, he justified it: "As a matter of fact it doesn't bother me if Afghans have two registration cards and if they like to vote twice, well welcome," Karzai said at a Kabul press conference with U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld sitting beside him. "This is an exercise in democracy and let them exercise it twice." And many voters indeed "exercised" themselves in democracy, in some cases, half a dozen times on the day of polling. Many Afghans, particularly men, registered many times. The rumor that one could sell a voting card for a hundred U.S. dollars drove poor Afghans to make some quick bucks. And, as a result, 5.63 million male voters registered, while the number of eligible male voters was only 5.12 million, which means there were at least half a million fake male voters.

But despite all such rigging practices, one is justified to a large extent in terming the elections "fair and free" – at least in the sense that the results weren't affected. Since all the candidates, including Karzai, "increased" their votes either through money or coercion, the percentage distribution of votes would have been same even if there had been no rigging. Rigging was expected. But what was not expected was that the election was peaceful. The Taliban's threat to disrupt the election process did not materialize. "The attacks would have claimed innocent lives, therefore we refrained from attacks," a Taliban spokesperson told BBC. "They have been isolated," thinks Sahar Saba. "The gun-toters have no mass support. Look at Ismail Khan of Herat. When he was removed as governor, hardly 100 men demonstrated in protest. Taliban likewise have no support. Attacks would have isolated them even further," she said in a telephone interview. Col. Dick Pederson, the commander of U.S.-led forces, said almost the same thing to a BBC correspondent.

The reason that the Taliban refrained from launching attacks perhaps lies somewhere else. On the one hand, the Taliban's major patron, Pakistan, had been passed a clear message by Washington to rein in the Taliban during the election. But also, it seems a deal had been struck between Washington and Taliban. The managers planning Bush's election campaign needed to have Hamid Karzai elected as Afghanistan president as poster boy for Bush's foreign policy. Twice postponed owing to the law and order situation and an abysmally low level of voter registration, elections seemed impossible in Afghanistan earlier this year. And in particular the Taliban were proving a major obstacle. To get through elections, Washington was ready to make any deal with anybody. This willingness was reflected during a visit to Washington in June this year by Hamid Karzai when he said: "I will talk to anybody that comes to talk to me about stability and peace and about movement to democracy."

In the search for a solution before November's U.S. presidential elections, focus once again shifted to a Pakistani cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads the Party of Islamic Scholars (JUI). Rehman is often referred to as Maulana Diesel, a sobriquet conferred upon him by witty Pakistanis when, in return for his support to former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, he was "rewarded" with a diesel franchise. Rehman was in many ways the perfect choice to act as a mediator with the Taliban. The Taliban leadership was mostly educated in the madrassas (seminaries) run by JUI. As a result, when the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) sent Rehman to Kabul after the Taliban seized power in 1996, the Taliban welcomed him with open arms and he was instrumental in establishing strong contacts between Kabul and Islamabad.

The JUI is the driving force in the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six religious parties that holds 60 seats in Pakistan's parliament. In a controversial move, the Speaker chose Rehman as official opposition leader in late May. Although a largely ceremonial post with limited authority, his appointment became a bone of contention. He was selected soon after returning from a little-publicized and unscheduled visit to England. Earlier, in March, in Pakistan, Rehman had met with visiting British Foreign Minister Jack Straw. The significance of these events emerged in comments Rehman made to a local journalist. "The British authorities are working on behalf of the United States. This indirect process has been chosen to avoid any ill-effects ahead of the forthcoming presidential elections in America ... Britain is holding indirect talks with the Taliban militia to seek an honorable American exit from Afghanistan." By implication, Rehman would mediate in this process. His comments created a stir in Pakistan. The interview, however, went largely unnoticed internationally. An embarrassed UK official issued a contradiction. So did Rehman. "I did not make any such comments. Neither I am in a position to make any contact with Taliban as they are in hiding," Rehman told this reporter in an interview.

The Asia Times correspondent Syed Saleem Shehzad, however, sticks by his story: "Rehman's interview on that subject first appeared in Daily Dawn Pakistan. The contents of the interview were quite clear and more explicit than my Asia Times story. There was no contradiction on my story or Dawn's story exclusively by UK or USA but in the light of our stories when UK foreign office officials were asked questions about their contacts with Taliban through Rehman, they denied. Obviously, they cannot accept these kind of secret negotiations. Even the USA has been in touch with Taliban in search of 'good Taliban' without Mullah Omar. But publicly they do not afford to admit these manipulations."

Rehman had told Saleem: "I had the chance to interact with Mr. Mike O'Brien, British minister for trade and investment. At the same time, I was invited to different institutions which work under the British Foreign Office. I clearly told them all to remove their mental hang-ups concerning the Taliban." Asked if there was any positive response? Rehman said: "Yes. The situation is not like yesteryear, when Western powers were not ready to listen to the name 'Taliban.' Certainly now they are preparing their minds for many compromises." In view of the Taliban's total "cease-fire" on polling day or even during the election campaign, Rehman's contradictory comments are suggestive.

The Taliban did not "win" anything in Afghanistan out of this deal, if there was one. But the Taliban must not be seen as an Afghan-specific phenomenon. The Taliban movement is an extension of Pakistani fundamentalism, of Jamiat Ulema Islam, to be exact. The MMA government in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, in fact, is a Jamiat Ulema Islam government. Had Rehman not co-operated, Musharraf might have dismissed the NWFP government. That was the stick. The "Opposition Leader" portfolio handed over to Rehman was the carrot. Also, the other patron the Taliban have in Pakistan is the Pakistani military. Days before the Afghan election, Karzai and Musharraf jointly met George Bush at the White House. The Afghan election was high on this tri-partite meeting's agenda. Most importantly, the Pashtun ethnic nexus might have played a role in this "deal." Since both Karzai and the Taliban are Pashtuns, they have a common enemy: the Northern Alliance.

Despite the completion of the first phase of the election process -- the next being parliamentary elections -- the future of democracy in Afghanistan remains a big question mark. When asked whether democracy will be able to flourish through a process imposed by the USA, ALO spokesman Tahir Khan said: "Never. We believe that American Imperialism raises specific slogans in definite times in order to achieve its own aims. The page of America's democracy has been torn with the killing of thousands of innocent people in Afghanistan during the war against its yesterday's puppets, the Taliban and al-Qaeda and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's band, fought by the Northern Alliance, and its actions in Iraq. But a considerably strong pro-democracy movement among the people is emerging day by day and the anti-Imperialism, anti-fundamentalism and anti-Feudalism aspects in this movement need to be supported while hoping that its leadership doesn't fall into the hands of the USA or non-religious reactionary forces. It is up to the revolutionary forces to empower the people's democratic movement against the American 'democracy' under Karzai's leadership."

The future of democracy depends, above all, like everything else in this war-torn country, on the security situation. Karzai must expand an undersized army and police force and persuade 40,000 militiamen to give up their weapons in a bid to dilute the power of warlords. But he himself and his US masters depend on warlords to run the government. One of his two vice presidents, Karim Khalili, is a warlord from the Hazara minority. The other, Ahmed Zia Masood, is the brother of revered anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Masood. The Afghans see his dependence on warlords as a transitional phase where he needs to depend on them until he is strong. But this was a paradox Afghan voters had to face. They voted Karzai to reject warlordism despite Karzai's dependence on warlords.

"On winning elections, Karzai will get rid of Northern Alliance," hopes Afghan Solidarity Party leader Arif Afghani, trying to clarify this paradox. Will Karzai be able to use the legitimacy obtained from his electoral victory to control the all-powerful warlords? That's close to impossible. The warlords command militias comprising 40-60,000 men. The combined strength of the Afghan police and the ANA does not match the militias' strength in either men or material. Karzai has the backing of around 18,000 US-led troops and 8,000 NATO-led peacekeepers. By contrast, the fledgling ANA controlled by Karzai has 14,000 troops. No re-construction is possible unless the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police are built to an extent where they can outnumber and disarm the militias.

But until now the policy of the US/Karzai regime has been that of appeasement and accommodation. Not merely warlords have been accommodated, but an attempt has been made to woo sections of Taliban. With one section of warlords on his side, Karzai will not be able to disarm another section of warlords. He will have to clearly break with warlords. His decision to remove Ismail Khan of Herat as governor, weeks before election, won Karzai widespread support. It also developed an illusion among Afghans that Karzai would disarm warlords as soon as he strengthens his grip on power. But it remains to be seen whether Ismail Khan's removal was merely an election stunt or whether Karzai is serious in disarming warlords. Or more precisely, if Karzai's Washington master is serious in democratizing Afghanistan. Or was it a one-time show for a Bush "foreign policy" success on the eve of the election?

About the Author: Farooq Sulehria previously worked with Daily Nation, Daily Frontier Post, and Workers Struggle (Lahore, Pakistan), before moving to Sweden in 2001. His articles now appear in Internationalen and Arbetaren. He is the Urdu translator of Tariq Ali's The Clash of Fundamentalisms (due out in spring 2005) and the author of, among other works, Dialogue with Socialism (Urdu) and Government of Jack Boots (Swedish and English, forthcoming).

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.