Afghanistan’s protracted election sours the mood

October 15, 2009

An atmosphere of stale defensiveness has sunk over Kabul. The mood has been lowered by the protracted saga of the Afghan election count, almost two months on from the first round August 20 vote. It’s a drama veering towards farce more often than post-modern play, as we wait endlessly for a result, that like Godot, does not want to come.

Winter has not yet arrived in Kabul, though the evenings are cold, quickly taking the heat of the sun out of the day. Afghan politicians are frustrated and twitchy, second-guessing the reasons for the U.N.-backed election watchdog’s plodding. We are being solidly methodological to retain the confidence of all, says the Electoral Complaints Commission, as it examines thousands of dodgy votes. A thankless task, most likely. The ECC officials will be puzzling over whether a box of votes has been mass-endorsed for one candidate, and should not stand, or if the suspiciously similar ticks on the ballot paper are attributable to only one man in the village knowing how to write. Many of the rural voters will never have held a pen in their hand, argued one official. It is natural in such a tribal society for the village to establish a consensus on who to support. Do such ballot papers count? Remember Florida, and how ‘hanging chads’ and the U.S. Supreme Court gave George W. Bush the presidency over Al Gore? It’s that kind of agony.

Behind the scenes the whispers are that hesitation and delay are because the outcome is excruciatingly close, too close to call. President Hamid Karzai, once set clear for victory, may find first round success ripped from his grasp by the disqualification of votes stuffed into ballot boxes by his supporters. He’ll likely win a second round, if it happens, against his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah; but there will have been a loss of dignity, of self-confidence and of an opportunity to stabilise Afghanistan and get on with fighting the Taliban.

Other more fraught scenarios are possible, as outlined by my colleague. Would Karzai gamble that the West has no alternative to him in Afghanistan? And that he can therefore afford to ignore the opprobrium that would follow if he rejected an outcome he did not like? Or are the suspicions of chicanery, back-room pressure on election officials and string-pulling by all involved just a proliferation of nonsense to fill the void left by the lack of a clear outcome?

Eventually the result will be out, perhaps by the time some of you get round to reading this. Most likely I will be back in London, watching from afar. Optimists would have it that clarity will clear the air, the Afghan political mood will lighten and spoils to all will come from the haggling over the shape of the next government.

Meanwhile Afghanistan is Limbo-stan. Obama won’t decide his strategy on Afghanistan until he sees what kind of Afghan partner he has to deal with. At least until then, and possibly longer, he won’t say yes or no to the extra troops that General Stanley McChrystal says he needs to carry out the counter-insurgency strategy that he has prepared. (Though he’ll carry out a different strategy, with no or fewer extra troops, if that’s what he’s ordered to do by his commander-in-chief). So in this limbo – the Washington policy void is filled with echo-chamber exhortations across the political divides; the Taliban is emboldened; Afghanistan’s neighbours are positioning themselves to benefit or at least guard against strategic loss should Washington fold its tent; and Western publics are wondering if there is a real purpose to their boys getting their limbs blown off while trudging through the fields of southern Helmand.

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