The election in Afghanistan has turned into a disaster for all who promoted it. Hamid Karzai has been declared re-elected as president of the country for the next five years though his allies inside and outside Afghanistan know that he owes his success to open fraud. Instead of increasing his government’s legitimacy, the poll has further de-legitimized it.
From Mr Karzai’s point of view he won through at the end and showed that nobody is strong enough to get rid of him. For President Obama the election has no silver lining. It has left him poised to send tens of thousands US troops to fight a war in defense of one of world’s most crooked and discredited governments. “It is not that the Taliban is so strong, but the government is so weak,” was a common saying among Afghans before the election, and one which will be even truer in future.
The US and its allies may now push for a national unity government between Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah, his main rival for the presidency. This might look good on paper, or at least better than the alternative of Mr Karzai ruling alone. But enforced unity between men who detest each other will institutionalize divisions. Its value will largely be in terms of propaganda for external consumption.
When Mr Obama won election on November 4 last year he must have believed he had been right to take a soft line on Iraq and a hard one on Afghanistan. The former looked much the more dangerous place. Just twelve months later he is discovering that the reverse is true and Afghanistan is the biggest foreign policy problem facing the US. It is a more dangerous place for the US and its allies than Iraq ever was.
In Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, the government was democratically elected by a huge majority in 2005. There was a savage civil war because the fifth of the population, who are Sunni Arabs, did not accept that victory of four fifths who are Shia Arabs and Kurds. The Shia did not relish US occupation, but they were prepared to cooperate with it while they took power. Only the Kurds were long term US allies.
In Iraq the state was previously strong and can be made strong again. Above all the Iraqi government had money. Its oil revenues were $62 billion last year. The Afghan government has in the past had limited authority outside the cities and it has no money apart from foreign aid hand outs.
Another important difference between the two countries is geography. Iraq is flat outside Kurdistan and the great majority live in cities and towns on the Tigris and Euphrates. It is not good terrain for guerrilla fighters in contrast to Afghanistan with its high mountains, broken hills and isolated villages.
The Taliban have been able in the past to use safe havens and bases in the Pashtun belt, north-west Pakistan where they can rest, train and store weapons and ammunition. These areas are now under attack from US drones and the Pakistani army. But the suicide bomber which killed 35 people in Rawalpindi yesterday shows that the cost to Pakistan of attacking an insurgency firmly rooted in its Pashtun community will be high.
One of the few benefits of the Afghan election might be a more realistic understanding in the US and Europe – particularly in Britain – of the mechanics of Afghan politics. These are eloquently and ably summariezed in his resignation letter to the US State Department by Matthew P. Hoh, the senior American civilian representative in Zabul province which lies just to the east of Kandahar in south Afghanistan. He was previously a US Marine officer in Iraq.
Mr Hoh makes the important point that the US has joined one side in what is effectively a 35-year-long civil war in Afghanistan. He sees this as being between the urban, educated, secular, modern Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional Pashtun. “The US and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified,” concludes Mr Hoh. “I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.”
Mr Hoh’s observations are confirmed by opinion polls in Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans do not want more foreign troops. They think their arrival will mean more dead Afghans not less and in this they are certainly right. The areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban is most acceptable is where US and allies planes and artillery have killed civilians. The idea that the US army is going to turn into a glorified Peace Corps, building bridges and roads is romantic and unrealistic.
Washington and London should really wonder after Afghanistan’s farcical election if their political and military investment in the country is worth it. Their policy of propping up and strengthening the central government looks more ludicrous than before. There is something sickening about propaganda claims from Whitehall that British troops has their legs blown off securing polling stations where Afghans could vote, when the British-supported government in Kabul was busily fabricating the vote so the presence or absence of polling booths was entirely irrelevant.
The US and Britain have joined somebody else’s civil war. It is not one that the Taliban are likely to win because they rely on the Pashtun community which makes up only 42 per cent of the population. By the same token they are not likely to lose either. American troop reinforcements would give the anti-Taliban forces control over more of the country but would also intensify the war. The context of greater US involvement will be, thanks to the election, a weaker Karzai government so Americans not Afghans will take the vital political and military decisions. To Afghans this means that the foreign presence will look like even more like an imperial occupation.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”