Features | Politics | Central Asia

It Just Got Worse in Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai’s decision to postpone the inauguration of the new parliament deepens what was already a political crisis, argues Robert Dreyfuss.

Things in Afghanistan always seem to be going from bad to worse. The current crisis over seating the newly elected parliament is no exception.

Following last September's poll—a catastrophically failed election in which millions of Afghan voters were disenfranchised and during which time President Hamid Karzai ruled by decree—Karzai announced his decision on January 19 to postpone the inauguration of the parliament by 30 days. At best, in the interim, the Afghan political class—including a host of warlords, tribal chieftains, ethnic demagogues and corrupt politicians of all stripes—might come up with a papered-over compromise that allows things to go on as they have since the equally flawed election that returned Karzai to office in 2009. At worst, though, the parliamentary election crisis could trigger an escalating wave of ethnic and sectarian strife that prompts a civil war on top of the struggle against the Pakistan-based Taliban insurgency.

Among other things, that latter outcome would spell utter doom for US President Barack Obama’s strategy of starting the orderly withdrawal of US forces this July, transitioning to an all-Afghan security effort by 2014.

That the September 18 election was a fiasco is disputed by no one. More than a quarter of the ballots, about 1.3 million of those cast, were thrown out by the controversial Independent Election Commission (IEC), over charges of fraud and corruption. The IEC and a parallel body, the Election Complaints Commission (ECC), collected thousands of challenges to the results. Millions of Afghans couldn’t or didn’t vote, especially in eastern and southern provinces where the Taliban is most powerful, leaving huge swaths of the Pashtun population—which makes up nearly half of all Afghans—virtually disenfranchised.

In Ghazni Province, for example, where the Sunni Pashtuns have a healthy majority, all 11 seats were swept by a tightly organized group of Shiite Hazara candidates, and in some areas the election was laughable: in Ghazni’s overwhelmingly Pashtun district of Andar, out of a population of more than 100,000 Pashtuns, more than 70,000 were registered to vote, yet only 3 votes were cast.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In total, the number of Pashtun members of parliament dropped from 120 to 94, out of 249 seats. Not surprisingly, losing Pashtun candidates howled. To mollify them, Karzai disparaged the election itself, and the authorities arrested all seven IEC commissioners, several staffers, and all three Afghan members of the ECC. Then, defying the newly elected parliamentarians, much of the Afghan establishment and the United States, Karzai appointed a special court, backed by the Supreme Court, with a panel of five judges who conducted an ersatz review of the election.

After much suspense, this week the court reached its foregone and clearly prearranged conclusion, asking Karzai to delay seating the new parliament. Strongly supported by Mohammad Ishaq Aloko, the former intelligence officer under Prince Mohammad Daoud in the 1970s who is now Afghanistan’s attorney general, Karzai did just that. And despite his declaration that the delay is for one month only, it isn’t clear when—or if—the new members will ever take office. Needless to add, the special court’s decision was denounced by many Afghans, including those newly elected, with the spokesman for the ECC saying bluntly, ‘The special court is totally illegal.’

To its discredit, the United States and much of the international community touted the absurdly mismanaged, rigged and corrupt September 18 election as a triumph of democracy. For Karzai, however, the election is literally a life-or-death matter. Even though the Afghan parliament is a less-than-perfect institution, were millions of Pashtuns to lose their representation while ethnic Hazara, Tajiks and Uzbeks gained, the result would almost certainly be to push many Pashtuns into the waiting arms of the insurgency.

Already, angry Pashtun tribal forces blockaded the road from Kabul to Khost, an important provincial capital. A Ghazni politician, Daoud Sultanzai, who was disqualified in the election, said: ‘We are trying to calm our followers, but if they don’t get justice many of them will turn to violence. It is not a question of joining the Taliban. Our followers are the majority. The Taliban will join them.’ Because Karzai’s effort to open a window for negotiations with the Taliban have alienated many former supporters among the former Northern Alliance—the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara movement that was supported by India, Iran and Russia during the Taliban era—the president has increasingly had to seek Pashtun support where he could find it. And his challenge to the election results has to be seen in that context.

But in postponing the inauguration of parliament, Karzai may have ignited a revolt among his former allies in the Northern Alliance, especially if winning candidates are barred from taking office. Many are already wary of Karzai’s offer to reconcile with the Taliban, and there are widespread reports that the Northern Alliance’s militia is rearming, with covert support from India and the Central Asian republics to the north. Iran, too, which strongly supports the Shiite Hazara, has cards to play.

In and around Herat, in western Afghanistan, Iran has built roads, an electrical grid, industrial parks, sparkling new mosques and more, and Tehran will balance its support for Karzai with a campaign to assert its own interests, especially in defiance of the United States. Now Karzai may backpedal and try to compromise with the non-Pashtun body politic, but juggling all that won’t be easy—especially if his overture to the Taliban begins to bear fruit. Since last summer, Karzai has tilted toward closer relations with Pakistan and its intelligence service, the ISI, because he believes that Pakistan can deliver the Taliban and its allies to the bargaining table.

At the very least, the post-election crisis vastly complicates American efforts to wind down the war. The insurgency isn’t showing any signs of going away; on the contrary, according to the United Nations’ confidential maps of the conflict, from March to October 2010, 16 more districts were elevated to ‘high risk’ areas, and there’s been little or no progress in reversing the Taliban’s momentum. ‘As the coalition focused on the south, the insurgents fanned out during the year to the north and west,’ the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, adding that the Taliban has ‘seized control in dozens of districts in previously secure areas.’ One noted Afghanistan expert, Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., told me that even in northern districts where Pashtuns are a minority, the Taliban is gaining adherents. And despite happy talk from US military commanders, a series of reports from the US intelligence community in December 2010 were pessimistic and gloomy, according to The New York Times.

All that, of course, was before the electoral disenfranchisement of those Pashtuns who tried to participate in Afghanistan’s great experiment in democracy. Now, unless Karzai is able to restore some balance and unify Afghans around a political settlement of the conflict, things are likely to go downhill even more rapidly than they already were.