Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Why Karzai decided to attack the West
It was a strange or at least unusual event. Reuters, other news wires and mostly Afghan journalists were summoned to the presidential palace early in the morning. A frequent and very familiar routine of standing around, waiting and multiple security checks then started .
On this occasion, we were packed onto mini buses with blacked-out windows and told only that we would be leaving the palace and going “some place outside”. The guessing game ended when the buses, flanked by armored Land Cruisers and charging down a busy city highway, honking other vehicles out of the way, turned into another building very familiar to reporters in Kabul: the Independent Election Commission (IEC).
It is not unusual for President Hamid Karzai to give press conferences elsewhere in Afghanistan (in other cities for instance) but I cannot recall a time when he addressed reporters in Kabul anywhere but the press room of his palace. Not knowing what was in store, I reminded myself it was also April Fool’s day.
We all agreed that we might get a response out of Karzai about the rejection of a presidential decree by the lower house of parliament and possibly something about the reforms that the U.N. has wanted of the IEC.
What we got instead was some of Karzai’s strongest words against the West and the international community. The defiant tone was set by Azizullah Ludin, the Chairman of the IEC, who gave an impassioned and rather rambling speech about how hard he had tried to serve the Afghan people, about how difficult the presidential election in August had been to monitor and how sad he was that the foreigners were interfering so much and manipulating the efforts of the IEC.
Ludin’s deputy, the Chief Electoral Officer, Daoud Ali Najafi, then followed with a much shorter but equally defensive testimony of what he had gone through and the pressures he faced. IEC colleagues and Karzai nodded in support. The whole thing (was it a press conference? An extraordinary meeting? An open exchange of feelings about how last August’s elections went?) started to feel a bit like a rather grandiose cognitive therapy session, in which people who have been scarred by something in their life, in this case an experiment with democracy, “share their pain” with like-minded sufferers as a catharsis.
Ludin and Najafi were heavily criticized by Karzai’s main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, the sacked U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, and the media, during and after the elections.
But the really strong stuff was to come from Karzai — a man whose image was tarnished by fraud which was found to be widespread in August’s election, who is under huge amounts of pressure to curb corruption and who had been snubbed by U.S. Barack Obama for 15 months before getting to finally meet the man, who is responsible for more than 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan, in a whirlwind night time visit.
Ludin had already turned the wooden podium at an angle so that it would face a row of officials (including Karzai) who were seated to his left. Karzai took the position — wearing a beautifully cut pirahan tomban (sometimes referred to as a shalwar kermeez) but without his trademark traditional Afghan choppan dress-coat — addressing Ludin, Najafi and scores of other election officials seated behind them, he began his diatribe about “the foreigners”. There was heavy use of this phrase — something picked up by many blogs and commentators. But it is, after all, the most efficient way to refer to the United States, the United Nations, NATO and Britain collectively in English as well as in Dari and Pashto. But some writers, including some of my own colleagues, thought Karzai had lost the plot and “gone mad”. But the entire event was really a face-saving exercise for Ludin, Najafi and the IEC, and an effort to preserve them some dignity and lay the groundwork either for their resignations or, more likely, their dismissal.
The lion’s share of Karzai’s vitriol was saved for Galbraith. Last year Najafi had told me off the record that Galbraith had telephoned him to warn him not to announce that Karzai had won after the first round, even if the vote count said so. He also told me about what General Philippe Morillonhad demanded of Ludin — that he not announce any results until the French General had a chance to forge an alliance between Abdullah and Karzai. Karzai used his speech to announced these accusations. At the time of the elections IEC officials were also concerned that Morillon’s politics harmed his own partiality and credibility as an outside observer. They felt that his past meetings, as part of a European delegation, with the assassinated anti-Taliban Tajik mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Masoud, whom Abdullah worked closely with and is strongly associated with, years earlier, made him pro-Abdullah.
The criticism aimed at Ludin, Najafi and Karzai from Western leaders during the elections was evidently justified, given there was fraud, and on a massive scale, something Karzai himself even admitted to in his speech. But figures such as Galbraith, Morillon and the man who led the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) Grant Kippen, were subject to hardly any scrutiny at all. Electoral officials told me at the time that they felt this lack of balance in the way the Afghan side of the electoral process was portrayed compared to the Westerners involved, almost amounted to some form of racism. The Afghans were painted as incompetent, untrustworthy and incapable of standing up to Karzai’s authority and the Westerners were the hard-working arbiters of fairness, transparency and, of course, democracy.
It may be more helpful to consider that Karzai had not gone mad, rather that he was hitting back and holding his ground in the face of worsening popularity at home and abroad. The task of having to sack Ludin and Najafi hangs over him and he knows he will struggle to find parliamentary support for a decree which, if passed, will ban foreigners from the ECC. If he does not remove Najafi and Ludin, he risks a stronger pounding by the media and the West ahead of September’s parliamentary elections. But he will remove them on his own terms, which means standing-up for the IEC and making it clear to the world that he is doing it not for the sake of democracy’s future in Afghanistan, but because “the foreigners” have cornered him and given him no other choice.