John Kerry was the toast of the spoon-fed media last week for his ostensible “achievement” in cajoling Hamid Karzai into accepting a runoff election in Afghanistan. Where was Richard Holbrooke, the sophisticates who indulge in Beltway kremlinology asked, as if his absence from this supposed “breakthrough” moment was telling. The reality, of course, is that Kerry’s insistence on standing behind Karzai, as if twisting the visibly uncomfortable U.S.-installed president’s arm as he announced a humiliating retraction of his insistence that he’d won the election on its first round, simply confirmed that the failed U.S. presidential candidate from Massachusetts is a political dolt. But the announcement — a delicious propaganda moment for the Taliban, who insist that Karzai is an obedient servant of the U.S. — was not half as damaging as the political gambit it showcased: Forcing Karzai to accept a runoff election which even the U.S. knows is a farce — so much so, that Washington is now hard at work trying to press Karzai into a power sharing deal so as to avoid the very runoff they had insisted was a precondition for sending more troops.
The fact that the Obama Administration asked us to believe that sorting out the matter of about a million fraudulent ballots would somehow decide whether Washington would send the 40,000 or more troops its commanders on the ground had asked for suggests that they really are no different from the Bush Administration in the extent to which they think we’re stupid.
As I put it in the National this week,
the argument [that resolving the ballot fraud issue is the key to establishing a legitimate government] is a red herring. Sure, those ballots were fraudulent, but the far more significant threat to the legitimacy of the next government was that more than 12 million of Afghanistan’s approximately 17 million voters stayed away from the polls in response to a violently enforced Taliban boycott (in contrast to the 70 per cent turnout in the 2004 presidential election). The Taliban were by far the biggest winners in the first round of voting, and the turnout for Mr Karzai and his opponent Dr Abdullah Abdullah is unlikely to increase in the second round; on the contrary, it is expected to decline.
The organisation of the run-off borders on farce. The UN has sacked some 200 of the 380 senior polling officials on suspicion of complicity in fraud; they have to be replaced, and whole new cadres of balloting officials hired, within two weeks. Western officials don’t sound confident that massive fraud can be avoided in a second round.
…It’s far from certain, though, that the run-off vote will go ahead – and nor does the US necessarily want it to. As one report put it last week: “Western officials also continued advocating a power-sharing compromise to avoid the problems of a second round of voting.” Problems? You would think Washington might have thought about those before forcing Mr Karzai to accept a second round.
Then again, cynics read the pressure for a run-off as a device to bring an increasingly insubordinate protege back under US tutelage by forcing him to share power; after all, the Americans have made clear all along that they accept the inevitability of the incumbent remaining president, even after a second vote.
Being forced into the run-off is certainly a slapdown for Mr Karzai, a tribal leader parachuted in by the US in early 2002 who understood that his only prospect of survival lay in cutting deals with the myriad warlords who control Afghanistan’s hinterland, and in ritually denouncing those aspects of the western military presence in his country – such as air strikes – that most antagonised the Afghans. The Taliban, of course, have always maintained that Mr Karzai is a US stooge, and last weekend it looked as if Mr Kerry was trying to prove their point.
Indeed, the song and dance over the runoff election is primarily aimed at a domestic audience. After all, President Obama looks set to dramatically escalate U.S. military involvement there. And so the folks back home need a good fairy tale to sustain that commitment. (Those being the folks on Capitol Hill, of course, who are also prone to fantasies that “training” hundreds of thousands of Afghans will turn them into an army ready to fight the Taliban. Curiously enough, the American electorate is far more skeptical of this war than its elected leaders are.)