Elections a Western obsession, not the Afghans’ need

If the Afghans had their way, they would tell the Americans and their Western allies what to do with their democracy and elections. While Hamid Karzai has been forced, under US pressure to agree to a run-off presidential election because of widespread allegations of fraud in the August 20 elections, this is the last thing on the mind of most Afghans. The run-off vote is slated for November 7 but most observers have expressed doubts about whether it would be held, and if so, whether it would be any fairer than the last round; more importantly, whether a majority of the Afghans would even bother to vote. Interviewed by Al-Jazeera and PressTV, Qatari and Iranian TV channels respectively, most Afghans said if their vote did not count the last time, why they should bother again.

Further, even during the August 20 vote, turnout in the crucial South and East of the country –” the Pashtun heartland –” was less than 5%. The New York Times also conceded this in its reports on the election. If a large majority of people boycotted the polls last time when the election campaign went on for an entire year, what chance is there that more people would bother to turn out in two weeks? Also, can polling stations be prepared and honest staff recruited –” 100,000 are needed –” to manage the election in this round? Most Afghan officials cannot even prepare lunch in a hurry; elections are as alien to them and their culture as they would be for visitors from Mars.

US Senator John Kerry made a special trip to Kabul to pressure Karzai over a five-day period (October 16–”20) until the Afghan president was forced to give in. There were tense moments even at the last minute as Karzai baulked at the idea of announcing a runoff vote but Kerry was able to push him to make the announcement. Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan Interior Minister (January 2003–”October 2005) wrote in the New York Times (October 21), “The challenge now is to engage the disenfranchised Pashtuns. Most Pashtuns feel let down and ignored by the government and its foreign supporters, who failed to provide enough security for them to vote. This disenfranchisement of the Pashtuns was compounded by the cancellation of thousands of votes from their districts because of accusations of fraud.” For Jalali, “the main challenge for the runoff is thus to get the disenfranchised Pashtuns into the electoral process. If this does not happen, then no matter how well the vote goes in other parts of the country, the Pashtuns will feel excluded.”

This is a tall order. Even the most optimistic Western observers feel the second round would be no better –” perhaps much worse –” than the first. So why go through the charade? Afghan elections are a necessity for Western governments that must show “progress” to their weary public. Most Americans have soured on Afghanistan and do not support the idea of sending more troops there. Europeans, better informed than their jingoistic North American cousins, have long opposed the war even if their governments could not say no to Wash-ington. A poll result released on October 24 by Britain’s Channel 4 found 84% of Britons oppose the war in Afghanistan.

For most Afghans, security, justice, food and basic services are more important than going through an unfamiliar exercise like marking ballot papers. Nor do they see elections as conferring legitimacy on the government. This is a process unknown to them. Afghans have historically relied on a Loya Jirga (grand tribal assembly) to manage their affairs. Elections are viewed as another attempt by the West to impose alien concepts on their tribal society and an instrument of foreign occupation and domination. Westerners dominate the Election Complaints Commission as well; three out of five officials are Westerners. The manner in which complaints were handled has reinforced the view among most Pashtuns that foreigners are manipulating their society and government that is already dominated by the minority Tajiks.

Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, admitted, “the choices for most Afghans… are so bleak that whoever wins will lack popular legitimacy” (New York Times, Octo-ber 21). He went on, “This time around, the weather will be worse, and the plain fact is, most Afghans don’t like their options enough to vote.” Besides, Tali-ban control most of the countryside in the crucial South and East; no government officials would dare venture there. With such large swathes of territory and people unable to even have the opportunity to vote, what kind of legitimacy would such an exercise confer?

Jean MacKenzie, Director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Afghanistan, and Kabul correspondent for GlobalPost.com, got it right when she wrote, “The Afghan people are tired and disgusted, and no second round is going to redeem the democratic process. Chances are there will not be a second round; weather and logistics could easily combine to torpedo the effort, and the challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has already hinted that he is open to talks ‘if winter should make a second round impossible’.”

That just about sums it up. Abdullah Abdullah is only interested in getting a share of the pie. Democracy is just a ruse to force Karzai to agree to some kind of a deal. The entire exercise has exposed the hollowness of the American enterprise in Afghanistan. The Afghans do not give a damn about elections and democracy; all they want is foreign troops out of their country and off their backs. They will sort their own affairs and on their own terms. No power in history, from Alexander to the Russians, has imposed its will on the wild Afghans. Americans are not about to reverse the course of history. They cannot keep even their own country from falling to pieces, much less sort out the affairs of others. Barack Obama is no Alexander the Great, to paraphrase British MP George Galloway, nor is General Stanley McChrystal. The sooner the Americans realize this the better for everyone, especially the long-suffering Afghans.