Afghanistan: The warlord election

August 21, 2009

Afghanistan held presidential elections on August 20 amid a major offensive by US and NATO troops and counter-attacks by a resurgent Taliban. The results are not expected until September.

Even before the election, Anthony Cordesman, a top civilian advisor to US commanders, said 45,000 more US troops are needed in Afghanistan — even as opinion polls show more US people turning against the war.

An August 18 Washington Post article said a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found a majority of US people believed the US-led war on Afghanistan was not worth fighting. Less than a quarter of those polled supported sending more soldiers to Afghanistan.

Around 51% of those polled said the war was not worth fighting — a ten point increase since March. As many as 70% of Democrat voters said the war is not worth fighting.

What was once seen as an easy US military victory against al-Qaeda in 2002 is now becoming a war without end, spilling over into neighbouring Pakistan. While al-Qaeda has been broken up, the brutal US/NATO occupation has given new life to the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamist movement based mainly among the Pashtun people, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

An Afghan-based reporter explained the election's dynamics to US Socialist Worker's Lee Sustar. A longer version of the interview can be found at .

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At the outset of the presidential campaign, incumbent Hamid Karzai was expected to win easily. Instead he is facing stiff challenges. Is the US still backing Karzai?

A few months ago it looked as if Karzai would run away with the election. In recent months, other contenders have narrowed the gap. The main contender is Abdullah Abdullah, who is a figure associated with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and served as an advisor to the famous warlord Ahmed Shah Masoud.

This is both his greatest asset and his biggest detriment. His political base consists of Tajiks, who strongly identify with the Northern Alliance, and with the many Tajik warlords in the north. However, Pashtuns typically despise Northern Alliance warlords such as Masoud (whose bombs helped raze Kabul in the 1990s) and are unlikely to support Abdullah.

Another leading candidate, Ashraf Ghani, lacks a political base outside of Kabul. He is a Western-educated technocrat who returned to Afghanistan after the US invasion following a 24-year absence. The majority of Ghani's support comes from the West and he lacks the ability to connect with ordinary, impoverished and traditional Afghans.

Neither candidate is strong enough to challenge Karzai.

Karzai is the only truly national political figure. He has name recognition — something which is very important in a country where most people can't read and don't have access to television.

Having no strong ties to the Taliban or the Northern Alliance, he is able win the support of Afghans from all ethnic groups. Thus, despite the many failings of his regime, Afghans will likely vote for him because he seems better than the alternatives.

The US would probably like to see someone like Ghani in charge, but it realises that it is most likely not going to happen. Instead, its policy seems to be a begrudging acceptance of another five years of Karzai.

What is the role of the warlords in this election?

This election marks the return of the warlords. While warlords dominated the Afghan government in the early post-2001 years, in recent times there had been a shift away from warlords in the Afghan government.

Various powerful warlords were removed from their posts and technocrats were gradually introduced to key government posts.

However, Karzai cut deals with many warlords to ensure his re-election. For example, he recruited the notorious Northern Alliance warlord Muhammad Fahim as one of his running mates in an attempt to split Abdullah's base. Fahim has been accused of countless human rights violations.

US and NATO troops mounted a major offensive in recent weeks. What are the results?

The US offensive in Helmand, which started in early July with 4000 Marines invading the largely Taliban-controlled province, has had mixed results. On the one hand, US forces were able to push out Taliban insurgents from some district capitals and towns they had been running for a number of years.

But they simply pushed the insurgents into the surrounding countryside and other provinces. The majority of the province remains under Taliban control.

There has been a reduction in air power, which was called for by the new general in charge, Stanley McChrystal. But there has also been less need for air power — the Taliban mostly melted into the population ahead of the US offensive, leaving much less fighting than expected.

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