The current election imbroglio in Afghanistan is so obviously a self-inflicted wound that it raises some intriguing questions. After all, any savvy 16-year old urchin in the bazaars of Kabul could have confidently predicted what would happen in the election to ensure a comfortable win for the incumbent, Hamid Karzai. So, what made US policy makers decide to attempt holding a genuinely “free and fair” election? Sheer lunacy? Or did someone pull off a clever ploy to scuttle the war?
Whatever the cause, the effects of this situation are quite clear. However the election drama (low comedy, really) plays out, at the end Karzai will still be President. But a Karzai who is now absolutely clear that he has outlived his usefulness to the US, and who can be expected to act accordingly. He will either use the US-NATO military effort to improve his bargaining position and then do a deal with the Taliban, or he (and his family) will redouble their wealth accumulation so as to be ready to make a quick exit at a suitable moment. In either case, with relations between the Afghan government and the foreign forces deteriorating, the war is going to go badly (surge or no surge). Western publics, already doubtful about the whole enterprise, will become increasingly disenchanted; at some point politicians will have to take note. NATO countries will start dropping off first, and then, in the not too distant future, the US Congress will pull the plug.
The attempt to hold a genuine election in Afghanistan was so obviously a sabotaging of the war policy that one is tempted to ask: was it deliberately advocated to achieve just that? Perhaps by some European policy-makers keen to get out without seeming to abandon the US? By the UN? Or, maybe, by some Obama supporter in the US policy-making structure, anxious to prevent the administration from being sucked into a Vietnam-like quagmire?
The depressing truth is most likely to be that this was a serious policy initiative of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. This worthy Policy Czar has not shown much understanding of the area he is supposed to look after, nor has he displayed any marked evidence of intellect. His strength seems to lie in bulldozing his way through problems, and it is quite possible that, having failed in earlier attempts to sideline Hamid Karzai, he believed that such an election would be a way of getting rid of this difficult player. For Mr Holbrooke the most apt comment on this whole affair would have to be something akin to this doggerel verse from the 19th century:
What, what, what,
What’s the news from Swat?
Sad news, bad news.