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Afghanistan's future in peril

Mass fraud and ballot-box stuffing in the recent elections has thrown international commitment to Afghanistan into peril, says guest columnist Ahmed Rashid.

Hamid Karzai
Mr Karzai's reputation has taken a blow

Claims of mass fraud and ballot-box stuffing during the 20 August presidential elections have plunged Afghanistan into a deep political and constitutional crisis for which neither the Afghan leadership nor the Americans or the UN have any easy answer.

The rigging was assured months ago when President Hamid Karzai began to ally himself with regional warlords, drug traffickers and top officials in the provinces who were terrified of losing their jobs and their lucrative sinecures, if President Karzai lost.

The reports coming in from around the country but especially from the Pashtun south - the heartland that voted for Mr Karzai overwhelmingly in 2004 - are becoming more indisputable every day.

Supporters of both Mr Karzai and leading contenders like Dr Abdullah are all alleged to have carried out ballot-box stuffing after voting ended on 20 August.


There have to be Afghan partners on the ground to help implement a minimalist state building strategy

It is a sad denouement for a man whose humility and moderation touched everyone when he was chosen as interim president in the Bonn talks in 2001.

Despite Afghanistan's backwardness, only a democratic set-up can prevent a return to civil war and ethnic conflict.

However what is now at jeopardy is the entire international commitment to Afghanistan, the danger of ethnic and political warfare, assassinations and bombings between rival candidates and an increase in the Taliban-led insurgency as they smell victory.

Anger and criticism

Today there is a growing debate in Washington and European capitals about what constitutes success in Afghanistan, and whether it is worth backing an Afghan leadership which has shown itself unable to come up to the real task of leading.

In Washington there is for the first time anger and criticism at the Obama plan that was announced only in March.

Afghan poll workers
The vote has been overshadowed by claims of mass electoral fraud

Will American and European public opinion hold up long enough for his plan to work and how many more troops, how much more money will be needed?

Unfortunately the election results have only strengthened the arguments of many dissenters in Washington who are insistent that the Afghans are incapable of learning and unwilling to build a modern state and Afghan society should be left well alone.

Unfortunately the same dissenters do not sufficiently criticise the past policy failures of President George Bush which have led Afghanistan to this impasse and the dissenters do not offer solutions.

So what needs to be done?

Firstly the American and European people need to be told the truth.

How their governments have failed them in Afghanistan over the past eight years, why so little nation-building and reconstruction has been done, and why insufficient troops and money were spent in Afghanistan as compared to Iraq.

Governments also need to explain how the terrorist threat has grown and al-Qaeda now covers much of Africa and Europe while the Taliban have become a brand name that stretches deep into Pakistan and Central Asia, and in the future could possibly extend into India and China.

Secondly rebuilding the Afghan state and economy must be tackled at breakneck speed.

Much of this is now understood by President Obama. His plan, for the first time places emphasis on things like agriculture, job creation and justice. However will Obama be given the time to carry out his plans?

The insurgency can never be finished as long as the insurgents enjoy a safe haven.

Suicide blast in Kabul
'The insurgency will never finish as long as the insurgents enjoy a safe haven'

The Afghan Taliban were made welcome in Pakistan in 2001 when they retreated from Afghanistan and are still made welcome because of a certain logic put forward by the Pakistan army, which mainly involves containing India's growing power in the region and in Afghanistan in particular.

President Bush treated then President Pervez Musharraf with kid gloves.

In recent months the army has now shifted its stance to take on the Pakistani Taliban in a determined fashion - since April the army has lost 312 soldiers and killed some 2,000 Pakistani Taliban.

Yet still there is no strategic shift by the army to take on the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda in their safe havens in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan.

No breakthrough

Despite the regional strategy that is being pursued by the US, there is still no breakthrough with Pakistan, while India acts tough towards Islamabad offering the Americans little room to manoeuvre.

There is no easy way out of this quandary except more time, greater trust-building and more international aid to Pakistan.

Lastly there have to be Afghan partners on the ground to help implement a minimalist state-building strategy.

Unfortunately President Bush ignored that for too long - the lack of good governance, the corruption, the growth of the drugs trade and the failure to build representative institutions were all ignored.

To emerge from this mess with even moderately credible Afghan partners will be extremely difficult, but it has to be done because without a partner the US becomes nothing but a naked occupation force which Afghans will resist and Nato will not want to be a part of.

The only answer once the final tally for the elections is made is a national government of all Afghan stake holders.

Ahmed Rashid is the author of the best-selling book Taliban and, most recently, of Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.


Here is a selection of your comments

It is difficult impose the Western idea of democracy on a nation that is tribal, feudal and where corruption exist in every corner of society. It simply does not work and I really don't the people of the county want this type of democracy thrust upon them. If they did then I'm sure it would have happen long ago without Western governments involvement.
Keiron, England

The Afghanistan war cannot be won. The last army to succeed was Alexander the great 2500 years ago. Russia with all her might in the cold war lost. Britain at the height of her world empire sent in an army and only one man came out alive. They do not want us. Why let thousands more soldiers die. If Obama thinks this war is winnable then let him get in there and fight side by side with the troops.
Leonard Barker, USA.

Afghanistan's future is not in peril. The US effort to overthrow the anti-American Mullah Omar, like it did in 1953 when overthrew the anti-American Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran, and force its puppet Hamid Karzai on Afghans, like it did when it forced the Shah Reza Pahlevi on Iranians in 1953, is in peril. First, the massive U.S. propaganda to paint Afghans as Al Qaeda converts failed, because they never were. They are only fierce nationalists, and those who know history -except some bubble-heads Americans who supported the Afghan invasion - know it. And as soon as Al Qaeda moved out of Afghanistan, the U.S. should have withdrawn immediately, and let the Afghans decide how to rebuilt their nation - as they have done for centuries. Second, the US needed a victory after the disastrous Vietnam defeat, and Afghanistan seemed a sure bet to cure the "Vietnam Syndrome" defeatism in the American military psyche. But they are discovering now that the side effects of the Afghan pill are much worse than their therapeutic benefits on their Vietnam Syndrome. And the worst of all: The Americans thought that bombing air-strikes and Predator drones strikes will scare the hell out of Afghans, and force them to grudgingly accept the American occupation. During the Iraq invasion, George Bush bragged that the U.S. will employ a "Shock and Awe" tactic that will break the Iraqi's will to fight the Americans. George Bush naively thought that the "graveyard of empires" history of Afghanistan did not apply to him, because those past empires did not have the military prowess of the US Now the U.S. is facing the problem that its "Shock and Awe" military might has not broken the Afghan's will to fight, and if anything i! t has hardened their determination not to yield to a superior power. Hamid Karzai, or any other U.S. stooge in Afghanistan, is bound to have the fate of the Shah's fate in Iran, and the fate of former Soviet stooges Karmal, Amin, Taraki, Hajibulah, and Rabani in Afghanistan. The question is not if - but when- Afghans have broken up corrupt regimes imposed on them by outside empires before, and they will certainly do it again. Afghanistan's future, therefore, is not in peril, but the U.S. and British effort to colonize it and establish a foothold in the strategically vital Central Asia region certainly is.
Nikos Retsos, USA.

The sad truth is both UK& USA are persistently pursuing the same folly. How long is it going to be before they sit up and take corrective measures. The American tax payers can't go on tolerating this massive folly of gambling with their hard earned money.
Bala Srinivasan, Saginaw. Mich. USA

It would be nice if these men would put their country ahead of themselves and work with each other. Mr Karzai, if his lead is weak and tainted might consider graciously stepping down and let Abdullah take his place. Mr Abdullah in turn should work with Karzai who could be a goodwill ambassador and also someone who works behind the scenes. Relative to their adversaries, these guys must understand they are allies.
Peter Komisar, Canada

The main problem is that the West and their supporters in the area either do not understand what the real issues in Afghanistan are, or are deliberately ignoring them while spending billions on the symptoms. Democracy and elections are somewhere at the top of Moslow's Pyramid of needs which may be 15 to 20 years down the road. Let us start at the bottom of the Pyramid and work our way up. For permanent peace, what we need is reconciliation which can not be achieved without justice, which can not be achieved without forgiveness which can not be achieved without restitution. All of this can be achieved only through the Afghan Code and Jirga not elections. That is my formula for Peace which can be seen at: http://duranet.ca/uploads/1/6/8/3/1683594/new_ideas_for_lasting_peace_in_afghanistan.pdf I think this formula can save Afghanistan from self destruction, and those who presumably support it from following the path of USSR.
Ahmad , Canada

Even US election is not 100% perfect. But we all live with it. And nobody expected 100% perfect elections under prevailing conditions. Let Afghan courts decide any irregularity or make a national Govt or make the runner-up a VP something.
David, USA

The Afghan Taliban were made welcome in Pakistan. They are still there. The Pakistani Taliban that they spawned are facing the heat from the Pakistan Army. I don't get it! Is it possible that the Pakistan government/military can't see there's little point in getting after the home-grown Taliban when their Afghan gurus are flourishing?
Ann Ninan, India

Mr Rashid you hit the nail right on the head. I as an Muslim American born in Afghanistan have come to this conclusion. The past 30+yrs of war, the manipulations of Pakistani government during the cold war, the decision of George W. Bush to invade Iraq thus neglecting Afghanistan has come back to bite the world once again. I pray that my countrymen here in the US along with the rest of the world have the fortitude to let President Obama implement his nation building efforts in Afghanistan to come to fruition. If we can not do it then it is best to combine Afghanistan/Pakistan as one nation , other wise it will be TALIBANISTAN by 2012!!!
Abdul Rahman Aref, USA

It was totally absurd to try and hold an election in Afghanistan, as if nothing were happening: a country devoured by a raging guerrilla war, and dominated by a series of warlords with power of life and death in their respective fiefdoms. They can recount the votes one hundred times, but these basic facts will still remain the same.
Carlo Cristofori, Italy

Mr. Rashid first says, "(O)nly a democratic set-up can prevent a return to civil war and ethnic conflict"; then "The only answer ... is a national government of all Afghan stake holders." In Afghanistan, those are two different prescriptions--unless "democratic setup" includes Afghans' traditional methods of choosing their leaders. Most Afghans regard the Western electoral method of random secret voting for candidates based on popularity, and on an easily rigged electoral process, to be irresponsible; they take the task of choosing people for responsible positions (of all kinds) more seriously. Traditional Afghan councils involve everyone, often including women, in a consensual deliberative process to choose the best person for responsibility--from the village level on upward. It isn't perfect, and it is occasionally overpowered by local strongmen, but it has the virtue of ensuring that the chosen representatives have the support of the people. If a chosen person goes off the rails, he can be replaced through the same process. Some long-term Western observers have described the process as more truly "democratic" than the Western version (see "Afghanistan: The mirage of peace" by Leslie and Johnson, 2004). In addition, I assume that by "all Afghan stake holders" Mr. Rashid includes representatives of the home-grown Pashtun "Taliban" insurgency.
Nick Wright, Canada

My goodness, there is corruption in Afghanistan!! what a surprise!! If any of the opinions mentioned above were true, it is time also to institute a war tax, a military draft, and a mobilization of resources. i wonder how many politicians would remain in office if they told the truth and financed the war as it should be. There are too many private contractors and corporations making too much money for a controlled effort. It is time to reduce the footprint and prepare for an end to this adventure. It will not have a happy ending and will bankrupt the us if these imperial wars are not financed by taxes.
John Wetherhold, United States

Americans and their allies thought Afghanistan will be an easy war compared to Iraq, ignoring the fact that Afghanistan was in deep crisis for 3 decades of civil war. All regional powers such as Pakistan, Iran and Russia were interfering in Afghan affairs by supporting different factions which is still ongoing. Pakistan has its own concerns about Indian influence on Kabul government and Iran being dominantly a Shia state has its own reservations and concerns about extremist Sunnis in the form of Taliban same is the case with Russia being concerned about US presence in the region threatening its geopolitical interests. Now with the disputed elections and claims of mass frauds and vote rigging Afghanistan is again drawn to a stage where civil war can spark up anytime, as the supporters of Mr Karzai from South are opposing Mr. Abdullah's claims of vote rigging and fraud, there is a possibility of ethnic fighting between Pashtuns and other ethnic minorities. International community is still ignoring the facts on the ground and is acting in a very negligent way by sparking public anger through bombing civilian targets repeatedly, people have started seeing them not as liberators but an occupying force. Also the Afghan economy is entirely dependent on foreign aid money unlike Iraq where rich oil resources provide most of country's budget. Considering all above facts it is a very important time for international community to come up with a strategy to resolve all the issues with regional powers and work on economy and governance in order to win public support. The main reason behind Taliban gaining ground and Afghan government losing its credibility is corruption and no actual projects that can make a considerable change in ordinary peoples life which made the general public isolated and disinterested in supporting their government, providing an opportunity for the extremists to regain power in most of the country without public opposition. The minute people feel they have a say in government and there are positive changes in their lives through essential projects, people will start supporting the government which will ensure security and stability for the long run unlike military solution which is proving to be a failure by costing life's on both sides, mainly Afghan civilians.
Yama Nezam, Canada

Ahmed Rashid is, as usual, correct. The world is watching the vote counting process, and there likely will be an inverse relationship between the amount and length of continued international support for Afghanistan and how the Afghans handle the fraudulent presidential vote. Mr. Rashid is also correct in emphasizing (mostly in another of his recent articles) the need for international aid to focus on the needs of a "minimalist state-building strategy." Much of the development aid is now going towards grand and complex systems which can not be sustained when donor funds decline, as they will; probably more quickly than we now know if the fraudulent vote results are left to stand.
Douglas Palmer, USA

Afghanistan and its allies are stuck in the quagmire of Afghanistan's turmoil. There is no easy way out. After eight years of war and so-called nation-building, the suffering of Afghans has increased exponentially. After spending billions of American and European taxpayers' dollars, we are back to square one. While General Dostum has occupied his time building a lavish dream home funded by a monthly salary of eighty-thousand dollars, provided by Karzai, thousands of Afghans have lost their homes by blind bombardment of their villages. If Hamid Karzai is declared the winner of the August twentieth fraud election, Afghanistan will be ruled by an illegitimate government that will prolong the war and increase the suffering of Afghans. There are steps that can be taken to work towards resolving these problems: 1) The result of the fraud presidential election should be abolished. 2) A grand assembly of Afghan intellectuals and wise elders of all ethnic groups should be established. Furthermore, a supervisory council with a cabinet of intellectuals who have no affiliation with any group in the past or present should govern Afghanistan for five years. 3) Afghanistan's neighbour countries should help to stabilize Afghanistan by not supporting the current insurgency, but rather give aid and support. 4) Security and progress should work hand-in-hand; Pakistan should be given a guarantee of security with respect to its border with Afghanistan. Also, India should not be given free reign in Afghan affairs, and its entire consulate alongside Afghanistan's border with Pakistan should be abolished. 5) A timetable of withdrawal of foreign forces should be announced. 6) A joint commission of Afghans and heads of donor organizations should be established to supervise the consumption of money and aid given to Afghanistan. 7) After five years, if security is established and education improves, a semi-election with another grand assembly should convene on the state of the government at that point and make improvements where needed.
Dr Qudrat Nasraty, California, USA

I am an Afghan American engineer working for 30 years in California. Prior to that I was working in Kunar Province/ Afghanistan. As far as I can see, the country has been destroyed for 14 years by former Soviet Union , as the Soviets left ,there was no any government created in absentia , as a result of this vacuum , the Pakistani opportunists took advantage of the situation a filled the vacuum. As far as I can see the Pakistan government are not going to give up on this issue. Accordingly they will create an atmosphere of chaos & fear for the western powers & in particular for the United States. I would rather see Afghanistan burn to the ground , than become the colony of Pakistan.
AC Miskinyar, USA

Dear Mr Rashid. Afghans are capable of better things, but how can they develop their national will under different puppet regimes in recent 30 years?
Azad Afghan, Afghanistan

An excellent and sensible article. The new US administration is trying to undo the wrongs of the past, but unfortunately the UK government is trapped by its complicity in those errors and its inability ever to admit fault. I disagree about the stance towards Karzai though - the West must take direct action on reconstruction and economic development, bypassing his corrupt and ineffective government. I do not believe the Afghan people would be hostile to that, they know his government is hopeless, they will judge by practical results.
Anthony Young, UK

Afghans are traditionally not a nation. There is no grounds for them to mix and live like one. They are divided into clans and the clan psyche is the operative denominator in all their lives; including political one. Its a fallacy on the part of the West that they are dreaming of a West-like-democracy to take roots in this country. It will not function here. Let the Afghans decide how do they want to live their lives. Stop this policy of thrusting your views on other nations. Its really okay if they don't eat McDonalds and drink coke. NATO has made this region so much more dangerous and it may take any violent shape from here when people's demands of a free country are not met.
Dr. Afaq Ahmad Qureshi, Pakistan

It's unfortunate that a respected journalist like Ahmed Rashid cannot let go of his vindictive against former President Bush for whom he blames everything that has gone wrong in Afghanistan. It taints everything he writes about Afghanistan. Contrary to what Mr. Rashid claims, good governance, corruption, and the drug trade were not ignored during the Bush Administration. I served for five years in Afghanistan 2003-2008 designing and implementing "Governance" programs to build the capacity of six Afghan ministries, including the Office of the President. They did not work. Unfortunately the Obama Administration strategy is no different and is repeating the same misguided approach. Mr Rashid's prescription of, "rebuilding the Afghan state and economy must tackled at break neck speed", is exactly what the international community has been trying to do for the past seven years. We do not know how to do it and it will fail (even under President Obama whom Mr. Rashid continually "fawns" over.) This is why there is ?anger and criticism? of the entire Afghan imbroglio, and rightly so.
Mark Kryzer, USA

Elections were never going to be the panacea, they were imposed in order to please a foreign audience who had to be convinced that their tax was not being spent in vain. You cannot hold an election in a mainly illiterate tribal society that does not fathom the value of a vote and who more often than not is going to use his vote in the way he is told. The first election was also massively corrupt but as everybody was in love with Karzai at the time, it didn't matter. The difference this time is that the "powers that be" wanted a different face in the palace. Why do foreigners always insist on imposing their own rules. Countries have their own governance systems developed over hundreds of years that are familiar and therefore people are happy with. The tribal Loya Jirga is the only system that will unite the country and therefore save the poor people of Afghanistan any further needless bloodshed and at the same time provide a way to withdraw.
Mohammad Nazemi, United Kingdom

I find it very strange that an article about Afghan elections somehow became an article about Pakistan not doing enough, or do the lives of 312 soldiers mean nothing.
Saqib, UK

We Afghans always welcome those people(International Community) who are really honest with us in words and spirit and want to rebuild this war-torn nation and we will be very thankful to them forever.
Iqbal M Miakhel, Kabul, Afghanistan

The Taliban should have been an option on the ballot paper , even if they did not come into the open and campaign.
Judy, England

Ahmed Rashid is generally accepting that over the years Pakistan has continued to manipulate events in Afghanistan to suit itself. In many ways I wonder if Pakistan still needs an unstable Afghanistan because it promises two things (1) that significant 'Afghan' aid also flows into Pakistan and (2) the Pashtuns are kept divided so that Pashtun terrotory within Pakistan is held onto.
Tor Khan, Abu Dhabi

The tragedy of the situation is that nobody learns from history. Afghans are known in history to be fiercely freedom-loving people. None succeeded in conquering them. None probably will. The medieval way of conquering a country by military might is inappropriate in modern times. the best course for nations of the world is to follow the United Nations Charter, which emerged from a world seriously disturbed by warfares.The sooner the power-blind nations of the world understand this, the better for a peaceful world.
M Nurunnabi Chowdhury, Bangladesh

It took no time at all for the West to brand the Iranian elections as having been rigged, yet it has taken all this time for the West to pathetically condemn the Afghani elections. The hypocrisy of the West is out there for all to see once again. How far is the West going to take the embarrassingly evident stand of "our dictator, good or bad?
Ahmed Kaiksow, Bahrain

Excellent Article. Keep up the good work.
Errol Thompson, Canada

The west cannot conquest Afghanistan with weapons or with the word democracy!! teach them and give them tools to work their lands, people need food, not pretty words!!
Cesar Cabrera, Perú

Unless US takes Pakistan "on", nothing would help! Pakistani Army must be told in no uncertain terms, that unless they destroy all terrorist camps, whether they are Al-Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban or Kashmiri Mujahedin; they are enemies of the civilized world. Until that Pakistani Army won't get a dime; Civilians in Pakistan don't matter; it is Allah, America and Army which controls Pakistani Nation!!!!!
Surendra Sukhtankar, USA

I agree with Rashid's argument, except for more international help for Pakistan, instead I would argue for more pressure, sanctions and even military action, if Pakistan is not ready to co-operate. I think this is the last chance for the Western Powers to demonstrate that they believe on democratic principles they have introduced for Afghanistan. If the fraud and vote rigging is ignored, not only the next government in Afghanistan will lose its legitimacy, but the entire western engagement will lose credibility. If you, and the government you support in Afghanistan, have failed in all of your objectives i.e. nation building, war against Taliban and Al-Qaida, reconstruction efforts, poverty reduction, corruption, reform in administration, judiciary and security forces, and the fight against drug trafficking, and now instead of changing the statuesque, you turn a blind eye to what Karzai and other warlords do, what do you expect from the people of Afghanistan? Or at least from those who have voted in a civilized manner and look forward for positive changes? According to my understanding, the presidential system in Afghanistan, with a high level of centralization of power, which was adopted by Karzai and his team in the post-Bonn process, is the main problem in a multi-ethnic and divided society of Afghanistan. This is the right time to change the constitution and introduce and decentralized parliamentary system. A proportional representation and the parliament as the centre of political struggle can put an end to current crisis.
M Rahimi, UK

Colonialism has never worked and never will. There is no such thing as benevolent colonialism.
Mohammed Murad, UK

My final advise to all is that there should be a new leader of Afghanistan, one who has the support and backing of Pakistan but can still be friendly with the Indians, a Taliban based government, Pasthunled and with all the financial and security the world can supply, then there can be peace for once.
S Khan, UK

We went into Afghanistan for our own sake, to drive out the Islamists; the question now is whether they are more of a threat with us in or out. The case may be argued either way, but governments must spell out their views, with the reasons, and shut up about irrelevances like democracy and human rights--particularly if for want of an alternative we let Karzai do in slow motion what Ahmedinajad did by smash and grab.
Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Uk

Its ridiculous, why cant NATO/ US admit that war on terror in AFPAK is NOWIN other than defeat except continued homicide / innocent killings. The only excuse to intrude into Afghanistan , during BUSH era has been proved a mere farce , coz they have not been able to capture neither OBL (most probably dead)nor Mullah Omar/ Al Qaida. President Obama must now come out with bold declaration to accept the falsified elections & cease useless support to the already failed Karzai and chart out a devised strategy in order to flinch away along with allied forces & let Afghans leave alone to decide their future but do not forget to placate them with reconstruction unlike past blunder (creation of Taleban) to nip the root cause of terrorism "deprivation"!
Sohail Gill, Pakistan



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