The Strange Disappearing Afghan Election Crisis
The above New York Times article is dated Dec 22. The crisis has been going on for months. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has vowed to file a complaint. That was in December. Will it even be heard? Will it even be noticed by any news organization? Has the election commission made any statements? The US spent lavishly on this election process, buying biometric identity machinery not seen even in the US. Afghan elections were once a center piece of US propaganda or “public diplomacy”. Now, it’s not such a big deal?
There is a national game in Afghanistan called Buzkhashi. It is a metaphor for Afghanistan itself. It is sort of like a football game but instead of football players, you have men on horseback and instead of a football, you have the body of a dead goat. Players routinely pull out knives, stab and trample each other. Riders compete to get the goat and gallop to the goal line. The horses often break out of bounds into parking lots and nearby streets. It’s dangerous just to watch. Team players turn on teammates to wrest the dead goat away for themselves. Sadly, the best avatar for Afghanistan is the dead goat. Whatever the value of the goat is, it really becomes lost in the contest which is played out in brutal thuds and slashes all over Afghanistan.
As a journalist, writing about Afghanistan is challenging because, among other things, the story is about what is not happening more than what is happening. What is not happening is the much touted “democracy” US diplomats so often bragged about. A few years back there was a video on youtube of a young marine on a patrol he didn’t need to be on getting a leg blown off by a mine. As they load him onto a stretcher, he says, “at least we got them an election.” But no amount of pictures of ink stained fingers and stories about advanced “biometrics” from Germany appear to add up to a credible election for Afghans. Not only is the government of Afghanistan not able to stand on it’s own, defend its’ own borders or “govern” in any normal sense, it cannot, in 3 tries, manage to hold a remotely credible election even with Western “help”. What actually has happened is that Zalmay Khalilzad was made the American Viceroy for Afghanistan and he has managed from the “Bonn Agreement” to today to cobble together centralized government that serves outside interests weakly while failing Afghans spectacularly. He has done so over a career that has spanned 20 years, 3 presidents and countless generals.
There have been 3 national elections in Afghanistan for their national leadership. The first consummated Khalilzad’s first appointee, Mr. Hamid Karzai. Jezail.org saw Karzai before the Bonn conference. He was speaking at Georgetown University. It was a very long speech in English, Pashto and Dari, the latter two main languages of Afghanistan. That, in itself, was a feat. But he probably never should have bothered with the english part. The promises the man made were spectacular. It was the first time jezail.org had heard an Afghan talk about women’s rights and promises of improving them. Having lived in the mountains, among Afghans, Karzai’s comments left this observer scratching. How the hell are you going to do that? Sex and power are far more intimately connected in Afghanistan than in the West. Enforcing foreign sexual mores in Afghanistan alone is a cassus beli for either a war against the West or a civil war in Afghanistan, take your pick. It certainly does not serve the cause of peace and no sane foreign policy professional can ever credibly suggest that. But there were so many more promises made by Karzai that night. It was enough to make your head spin. Karzai was an unknown. No one had ever heard of him before. It appears he was a friend of Zalmay Khalilzad and just like being a “friend of Bill”, that matters. The election pitted Karzai against the ever patient Abdullah Abdullah. The election was, as the old phrase goes, “marred by low voter turnout and claims of election fraud”. That phrase ended up in every Western News noise box around the world for three consecutive Afghan national elections. The story was gone the next day. It should be a song. It has become a meme, just as is the phrase, “Soleimani, a man whose death no one mourns”… But Karzai, in the first election, was the “winner” and Americans were told that free and fair elections had been held and too may believed it. Politicians boasted and American soldiers lost lives, limbs and their minds over it. Those of us privy to satellite tracking of the polling stations that were reputed to have nearly 90% voter turn out saw empty parking lots.
Nobody with any experience in the region believed the result. Some people at STATE said that they did. But Karzai was a nobody who came out of nowhere to win an election against an acknowledged hero of the war against the Soviets, Abdullah. Abdullah was not a warlord either. He was a medical officer who became an advisor to Ahmad Shah Massoud, “the Lion of the Panshir Valley”. This unlikely election disappointment did not come as a complete surprise to some Afghans. In the fight against the Soviets, US officials tried to stop Massoud from capturing Kabul from the left-behind-Soviet proxies so that Americans could install other leadership. Massoud’s forces did hold back for about a day until they realized that the delay was likely to rob them of their victory. So they rolled in with a last intense gunfight at the fortress of Bala Hissar. Much of the advance was unopposed because deals had been struck with many in the Kabul business community and military years before the final push. Jezail.org was in Afghanistan and saw that taking place as early as 1988. But if one asked why they didn’t close in on Kabul in 1988, the answer was always, “go ask Pakistan”.
Historically, Pakistan has always been meddling in Afghan affairs since its’ creation. However, when the US decided weigh in to help the resistance against the Soviet invasion in 1980, it was decided to make Pakistan the CIA’s quartermaster. This put Pakistan in a position to amplify its’ meddling in Afghanistan’s fate on steroids. And meddle they did. This was chiefly accomplished through the offices of the Pakistani ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) which began to pick winners and losers on the battlefield not for military effectiveness but for obedience to ISI command and for the degree of Islamic revolutionary chauvinism they practiced in the days before Ossama Bin laden mattered to anybody. This resulted in the selection of the Hezbi Islami led by Gulbuddin Heckmatyer. A unique characteristic of the Hezbi Islami led by Heckmatyer was that it identified itself as an almost solely Pashtun tribal organization. At a time when the rest of the Afghan resistance was trying to unify fractious competing organizations, the Hezbi Islami stiff armed all of the rest of the various resistance movements, sometimes getting into violent clashes with their erstwhile comrades. More commonly there were dangerous standoffs. This was encouraged by the ISI to advance the objectives of Pakistan in Afghanistan. As the resistance wore down their Communist enemy, the fratricide increased.
The CIA did nothing to intervene or curb Pakistani corruption which they, in fact, actively protected at every level. When the FBI moved to investigate the Pakistani theft of US atomic technology, the CIA blocked them. The corruption became so extreme that it boiled over and was almost certainly the cause for the assassination of Pakistan’s dictator Zia. It must be remembered that, at exactly this time, nuclear technology was stolen from the US by Pakistan and Stinger missiles intended for Afghans ended up in Iran. That corruption also blew back to the United States in the form of cash payments widely believed to have gone through Congressman Charlie Wilson’s office. Those payments went to then Senator John Kerry who changed his vote to make Pakistan eligible for USAID money in spite of glaring Pressler Amendment violations. (Jezail.org knew the lobbyist who carried the payment, Dave Mangan.) The lasting effect of this payment and other actions have been to institutionalize a struggle between Pashtun chauvinism and the rest of Afghanistan’s minorities, who, altogether, outnumbered their Pashtun foe. That fight continues to this day. It is the root cause of the violence between the Taliban which violently wrested Pashtun leadership from the Hizbi Islami, and continues to fight the rest of Afghanistan.
It is also the source of a different form of blowback. Besides terrorism and corruption there is also a schism in American diplomacy on this same fault line. THE key architect of this US foreign policy schism and incoherence is Ambassador Robin Raphel. It was Raphel who talked Benazir Bhutto then Prime Minister of Pakistan, to back the Taliban in 1995. She did this at the same time as her boss SECSTATE Madeline Albright was declaring the Taliban “despicable” for the way they treated women. Even then, there was policy contradiction. In the days of the Clinton Administration, Raphel pursued a classic revolving door career dancing from STATE to working as a lobbyist on behalf of various but similar clients from the UNOCAL pipeline consortium to the government of Pakistan. Her house of many years in Washington DC was a five minute walk to the Embassy of Pakistan. The FBI intercepted communications of Pakistani ISI agents in the US in which the Pakistanis were laughing about Ms. Raphel being the best agent they ever had. The investigation turned up enough evidence for investigators to recommend a prosecution for espionage. Espionage. However, in 2014, Eric Holder, then Attorney General under Bill Clinton stopped the prosecution. As it happens, Robin Raphel is an old friend of Bill going back to his days at Oxford. The story was spun down in the US media into a case of mishandling documents and was compared to the Sandy Berger mini scandal. Yet Raphel did lose her security clearance and diplomatic credentials. However, what we know she did accomplish from 1996 until 2014 was to lie about or minimize the connection between the Pakistani ISI and the Taliban even as they were killing American soldiers. It was Robin Raphel who set up the first major crack in US foreign policy even as she became the senior desk officer for South Asia or Near East.
Jezail.org wishes to point out, at this point, that as many Americans have been rightly concerned with Afghan and Pakistani corruption, the big tuna of corruption swim much closer to home. It has always been that way and complaints about Afghan corruption have been used as a form of misdirection. We see this ruse to this day in the reportage of the so-called Afghan papers which are primarily about US incompetence and corruption. But they are spun in the media as tales of other people’s corruption. Jezail.org wishes to point this distinction out because this is a very common theme in MSM reportage. By far, the greatest part of foreign policy corruption, fake incompetence and real incompetence emanates from Washington DC.
In any case, Afghan polity has been constantly wrangled and crowbarred over from Washington DC and elsewhere in the West over the Pashtun vs. everybody else in Afghanistan contest. This fact has been treated almost as if were a state secret in US policy circles. Perhaps the most important demographic information for Afghan political analysis is in the area of ethnicity. Tribes, subtribes and clans break down along these lines. Afghans tend to self identify first as a member of a certain tribe and national identity only becomes more important in the presence of foreign invaders. So it was astonishing to jezail.org to find out from a former Marine Col. who went to work at the DIA, that they weren’t allowed to study ethnic and tribal demographics as of 2013. That was “racist”. To jezail.org, this was not mere stupidity. This was a deliberate sabotage of military intelligence. There are other forms of incoherence and military malpractice that jezai.org has encountered which seem deliberate.
For example, virtually all military officers serving in Afghanistan are required or encouraged to read TE Lawrence, the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”. This defies common sense. Lawrence fought as an insurgent and conducted an insurgency as well as writing a crushingly boring book about it which enshrined his egomaniacal pedophilia and “writing his will across the stars” more than explaining his methods. But American military officers are being organized to fight a counter insurgency. It is the opposite kind of campaign. The man to read about this would be the much decorated Sir Frank Kitson. Jezail.org very much doubts any US military personnel ever heard of the man. In fact, the senior American command destroyed the career of a most promising American officer, Maj. Jim Gant in a bid to stop the idea that a small group of soldiers could hold down the same amount of territory as an entire Marine division. The point here is that the Afghan war was never set up to win or deliver a decision of any kind. Again and again, there are stunning examples of things that cannot be merely explained by incompetence. This is reflected in the Afghan elections which were all rigged to deliver one “messy political crisis” after another and perpetuate the war. To that extent, policy and strategy has been most effective.
So it was pretty much written that the two previous Afghan elections would be entered into the fail column. Success puts down a way point toward concluding operations and going home. But nobody at the top wants to go home. Nobody. Not the generals, not the admirals, not most of the senators, congressmen and none of the diplomats. Indeed, jezail.org actually heard then Ambassador Robin Raphel confidently claim as an objective: “Afghanistan could be just like Korea!”
Except for one thing.
At this point, why bother? Next to Ashraaf Ghani in this picture is his vice president, Amrulah Saleh. Jezail.org knows Saleh. He has been a very articulate spokesperson who has the same Massoudist roots as Abdullah. He is a very accomplished man who rose up from the ranks of a fighting organization to getting an advanced education and becoming Afghanistan’s interior minister for a time. It is widely believed that certain American power brokers had approached Saleh and asked him to be the head of the Kabul government, known as the NUG. He wasn’t interested. He knows Afghan history. Afghan rulers installed by outside powers don’t end up well. In any case, is the President of Afghanistan really a President or is he really the Mayor of Kabul?
Ominously, stories filed about the Afghan electoral crisis have dried up even in their own media. TOLO News has headlines, none of which have links to articles, none of which are dated in January. It’s as if it’s meant to just go away. This NY Times article is dated in December. As Trump is facing an election, a fiasco with Iran and an impeachment, what will he let go of first?
This time Abdullah Abdullah may have had enough. His second electoral “loss” to Ashraaf Ghani, a man who has all the charisma of a fungus and a man more strange to Afghans than Karzai but was described in US media as a “populist” – that was bad enough. But Abdullah did what he had to to avoid violence and cut a phony power sharing deal through SECSTATE Kerry. He swallowed his pride and took the deal. But this time he may not. If the US is negotiating with an entity that claims to represent the Taliban in Doha without any Kabul government representation, why bother? Isn’t it just chasing after a dead goat?
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.