Karzai limps towards an illegitimate victory

As Afghanistan's votes are counted the fraud accusations grow, the size of the turnout appears dismal and the new US military review doesn't tell us much that's new

As Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai inches closer to the magical number that will relieve him of a pesky election run-off, hope for the beleaguered country ebbs away.

Add to that mess the report to the Obama White House from the Commander of the US and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, who says the current operation is not working and must be seriously revised. In other words, the war that’s been going for nearly eight years has been badly managed. His assessment came on the last day of the deadliest month ever for foreign forces caught up in this war, and quite frankly didn’t say anything we didn’t already know.

McChrystal hasn’t written off the task – whatever it is now – but says success is only achievable if there is radical change in the approach to fighting the war, and obviously radical change in the approach of the Afghanistan government. Which brings us to a rather large and consistent problem.

Sure it is not all Karzai’s fault. It is generally acknowledged, and was this week repeated again by the White House for good measure, that the blame lies with ‘W’ Bush for going in to Iraq and fighting the wrong war there, leaving Afghanistan under-resourced, under-planned, under-manned, under-funded and any other sort of under that is appropriate in the realm of grotesque irresponsibility.

In an interview with the BBC McChrystal tried to explain that many of the Taliban they encounter are not toughened ideological warriors who are fighting an irredentist jihad. Many are there because they have no other job, and would be quite amenable to being given the OK to leave the insurgency and just go home. Easy-peasy. McChrystal for good measure added that there is really no need to kill these guys. Good to get that sorted after nearly eight years.

It gets really sticky however when McChrystal asserts that part of the revised strategy must include the Afghanistan government. He believes Afghans are suffering a crisis of confidence. Imagine how they will feel if they have the incumbent President returned following an election which is now so riddled with fraud complaints and the acknowledgement of record low turnout that it can never be considered legit.

While only half the polling stations have been counted, Karzai stands at just under 46% of the vote with Abdullah Abdullah on 33%. But 46% or 33% of what? Imagine if Karzai makes it over the 50% no-need-for-a-run-off threshold but only 35% of Afghans made it to the polling stations. It screams illegitimacy and is hardly the confidence reinforcer McChrystal is looking for.

It’s not that everyday Afghans didn’t try. The fact that any braved the Taliban threats is testament to their yearning for the chance to have their say – a.k.a. democracy.

However as the numbers trickle in, any next Karzai administration will begin in tatters. For that matter an Abdullah Abdullah administration would suffer the same credibility issues if elected on a paltry turn out.

The Election Commission – established by the United Nations and run by Canadian Grant Kippen - has received more than 2000 complaints about election fraud and cheating, and says at least 500 are serious enough that if upheld could materially affect the credibility of the election outcome.

The tales of woe include claims that voting venues for women were universally shut down, that there was widespread ballot stuffing, that voting papers were just sitting piled up in police stations and therefore not being counted, that there were numerous accounts of multiple voting for Karzai that was so blatant there were not even attempts to hide the pen used nor vary the style used in ticking off the incumbent’s name.

But really you’d have to be naïve to have expected much different, and compared to Iran’s fiasco, the Kabul Commission seems to be a lot more credible and independent than Ahmadinejad’s cronies.

That said, there are some lessons from Iran in terms of the perception of international interference and that applies to Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke who while denying having a knock ‘em down set to with Karzai last week, is still seen as awfully powerful and awfully close to the action. Locals could read interference.

The headache of Afghanistan’s immediate future is not one Afghans will hold heavy in their hands alone, and that really is the best that can be said of it for now.

As Pundit has discussed before, the dilemma for countries such as America, Britain, Canada and now New Zealand is how to justify the conveyor belt of their young and their brave into that seemingly endless pit of suffering and danger. That is especially so when the end game is still not really clear. It is highly problematic if it is to democratize the country according to Western standards because that is not going to happen any time soon.

Should Karzai tip over the 50% mark, his will be an administration stacked with warlords, drug barons, suspected mass murderers and mercenaries - and they are just the ones he co-opted to help him in the election campaign. Who knows who else will be lurking in the shadows waiting to cash in by securing Karzai peace in a far flung province in return for appointment at the head of some or other ministry?

The issue won’t be democracy and voting rights, it will be far less esoteric. It will be basic human rights and so far they are proving highly elusive.