29 October 2009 Edition
The Great Afghanistan Folly
BY DARA MacNEILL
What now for Hamid Karzai? He was the poster-boy of ‘new democracy’ and the icon of ‘nation-building’, that most patronising of Western projects, wherein ‘nations’ in certain parts of the world only become nations when they have been reconstructed in the image of their creators. There is only one possible model and no deviations are acceptable.
If nothing else this recent, great folly is clear evidence that the big powers rarely learn anything from history.
Hamid Karzai is now damaged, almost certainly beyond redemption or repair. No matter what the outcome of his run-off second round presidential vote next month, against former minister Abdullah Abdullah.
What the flawed process also demonstrates is how deeply the big powers drink of their own propaganda.
The war is going badly and Washington, London and the UN needed a good news story to tell the world. For a time, after the polls closed, they actually appeared to believe that they had one.
But then the tales of ‘ghost’ polling stations began to emerge, of mysteriously high turnout in areas with high levels of combat and violence, of opposition votes gone missing. And then an investigation by the UN-appointed Electoral Complaints Commission (a body not controlled by Karzai) found an astonishing one million of his three million votes were fraudulent. Electoral deception on that scale almost certainly ensures that no Karzai regime will ever enjoy a shred of national or international legitimacy.
But this was an act of electoral fraud not only foretold, but flagged and signposted.
CORRUPTION AND FRAUD
In Afghanistan, it was widely believed and understood that Karzai could only win by resorting to corruption and fraud. Some said as much publicly. In July, the head of the Abdullah campaign – Karzai’s chief rival – told a foreign journalist that: “He cannot win unless he resorts to large scale corruption, so we will not accept that. The nation is not voting for him. He only gets votes through his (provincial) governors and by corruption.” When the Karzai regime heard of these comments, they considered having the speaker arrested for inciting violence, but realised that would draw more attention.
If that was the opinion of just one opponent, it might easily have been dismissed as a campaign ploy. But it chimed with what others also said. Thus, another candidate – as ex-official of the World Bank – also delivered a very damaging assessment of Karzai’s reputation: “Should he win, nobody in this country will believe it was legitimate.”
And yet, within hours of the election the big powers all chose to ignore the elephant in the room. President Obama declared that the election appeared to have been “successful” and the UN’s Ban Ki-moon sent his congratulations. And British PM Gordon Brown spoke of the lives lost and “major sacrifices” that had made the process possible. He wasn’t referring to the thousands of Afghan civilians that have been killed. And with each passing day, as the full scale of the electoral charade became clearer, Mr Brown’s words gathered a resonance he had not originally intended.
And then they added deep insult to the injury by lauding Karzai’s decision to agree to a run off vote with Abdullah Abdullah, citing this as clear evidence of his clear devotion to democracy.
With Washington on the cusp of making a decision on the committal of perhaps a further 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, this is a slightly awkward moment. They know the Karzai regime is corrupt, they just want to pretend that nobody else knows.
The Karzai family is neck-deep in the drug trade – with his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai controlling key opium production in Kandahar – and senior US officials have allegedly had furious rows with the Afghan president on this issue. But the problem seems to be that Karzai has been slow to share the proceeds of corruption outside the family ranks.
Some in the US say President Obama now faces a very telling repeat of history. In 1963, another Democratic president – JFK – was faced with the prospect of a similar military escalation in Vietnam. His problem was that the head of the South Vietnamese regime – President Ngo Dinh Diem – was massively unpopular and hugely corrupt. He too had been installed by Washington and was bereft of legitimacy, as was the artificial statelet he ran, it having been effectively created by the US – an early example of ‘nation building.’
Kennedy committed to the escalation and ordered Diem removed from power. He was murdered in the military coup that followed. Forty six years later, is history repeating itself as farce?