Maybe it’s the relatively thin air up on those high plateaus that makes them foolish. First Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who would probably have won the second round in the presidential election in Iran anyway, cheated massively in order to win in the first round and avoid a run-off. The incredible voting figures declared by the government triggered huge demonstrations in Iran and gravely undermined the regime’s legitimacy.
Two months later, in next-door Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai did exactly the same thing. All but one of his opponents would have been eliminated in the first round of voting, so his re-election as president in the second round was assured. He had bribed the northern warlords to deliver large blocks of votes to him, and in the south his Pashtun ethnic roots made him the favoured candidate among those who dared to vote.
Yet in order to “win” in the first round of voting and avoid that run-off, Karzai’s people indulged in brazen, systematic cheating. His men set up hundreds of fictitious polling stations and registered hundreds of thousands of ballots in his favour. (Some of them weren’t even folded, so they could never have been inserted into a real ballot box.)
Karzai’s organizers also took over 800 real voting stations and kept local citizens out while they stuffed the ballot boxes with votes for their man. In some provinces, the number of votes for Karzai was 10 times greater than the total number of people who had actually shown up and voted. But the “Independent Election Commission”, a body dominated by Karzai loyalists, reported that Karzai got 54 percent of the votes and won in the first round.
Why did he do it? Maybe it was because he knew that the Obama administration wanted him replaced, and feared that the U.S. would try to manipulate the election in the other direction. At any rate, the damage is done, and Washington is now shackled for the next four years to a corrupt and incompetent “winner” whose contempt for the electoral process and the Afghan people is manifest.
At the moment, there is dismay in the Western capitals that have sent troops to fight in Afghanistan. How can they ask their soldiers to die defending an illegitimate regime whose leading lights are a crooked president, his drug-trading brother, and two vice-presidents who are both former warlords with much Afghan blood on their hands? But this shameful election is not just a disaster for Western policy. It’s also an opportunity.
President Obama made a huge mistake in accepting the Washington orthodoxy that the war in Afghanistan is both vital to American interests and winnable. If he doesn’t turn around and start looking for a way out, it may destroy his administration in the end (though probably not in his first term). But the hardest thing in politics is to change course: you are punished far more severely for admitting a mistake than for making it in the first place.
What Obama could now say if he wanted, however, is: “This changes everything”.
It doesn’t, really, because the war in Afghanistan has been unwinnable for years, and it was never a vital American interest. Nor was Karzai’s regime honest or competent before this election. But Obama could say that the revelation of the true nature of the regime that the United States is supporting has forced him to reconsider the scale of the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan, and he could then start working his way towards the door.
Suppose he does that, and that in a couple of years he is safely out of the door. The last American and other foreign troops have gone home, leaving Karzai to his fate. What happens then?
This is the tricky bit, because of course we cannot know for sure. But here are some significant facts to consider.
The 9-11 attacks were not planned in Afghanistan. They were planned by al-Qaeda operatives in Germany and Florida, and it is very unlikely that the Taliban government of Afghanistan had advance warning of them.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda were not “allies”, though they held similar views about the right way for Muslims to live. The mainly Arab senior members of al-Qaeda were in Afghanistan in 1996–2001 because they had fought alongside the Afghans as foreign volunteers during the war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. The Taliban leaders felt a debt of honour towards them, and gave them refuge.
The Taliban never ruled all of Afghanistan. They controlled their own Pashtun homeland in the south and east, plus Kabul and some other bits, but the militias of the other ethnic groups always held out in the north.
So why does Western political rhetoric take it for granted that the Taliban would gain control of all of Afghanistan if Western troops left, or that they would then allow al-Qaeda to have bases in the country again, or that they have the slightest desire to attack the West?
If Western troops did pull out of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai would try to make a deal with the Taliban, and he might succeed. Even if he failed, few Western interests are at stake in the outcome. This outrageous parody of an election has given Barack Obama the political room he needs to save himself, and he should seize the opportunity.
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House.