There’s a very important election coming up this fall. No not that one; the October 9 presidential election in Afghanistan.
The contest hasn’t received a huge amount of attention, and what coverage it has received — like the item that the Washington Post buried on page A12 — has skimped on important context. Among the worst examples of uninformed election reporting from Afghanistan was an article last week in Slate filed by Michael J. Kavanagh, an NPR reporter who, distressingly, has been training Afghans in the art of radio journalism.
According to Kavanagh, it’s a terrible thing that interim leader Hamid Karzai is favored for an easy victory over the field of 23. Kavanagh sneers:
The Bush administration seems to think Karzai is the only man who can lead Afghanistan. It’s true that the charismatic Pashtun cuts a seductive figure with his charming English and impeccable sense of style, but with those credentials, Karzai seems more qualified to host a Queer Eye With Hamid Karzai series than to lead a fractured, unstable country.
Karzai, as you might have guessed if you’re not burdened with reflexive hostility to anything the Bush administration favors, was not parachuted into Afghanistan after being plucked off 5th Avenue in mid-shopping spree. He provided money and arms to the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the ’80s, was the deputy foreign minister in the post-Soviet government, and when the Taliban took over was offered a spot as ambassador to the U.N.
He refused, having come to oppose Taliban rule. Karzai was instrumental in convincing several Pashtun tribes to end their support for the Taliban in the fall of 2001. The point being, if Karzai is not an effective leader — a question we’ll get to in a minute — a lack of credentials is not the reason.
“Few people I talked to in Afghanistan… were particularly happy with [Karzai],” reports Kavanagh, forgetting that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” A poll of 804 Afghans released a few weeks ago, in fact, had 62 percent of respondents rating Karzai’s performance as good or excellent. But if Kavanagh is unfair to Karzai, his assessment of the alternatives is even more blinkered:
Believe it or not, most of Karzai’s opponents — many of whom I spoke to in Kabul at the end of July — have distinguished records of service as political, religious, or resistance leaders. The list even includes a few choice personalities — a prominent woman doctor, a poet, and a whiskey-drinking warlord. They represent the range of Afghanistan’s clans, ethnic groups, and regional divisions. On Tuesday, a coalition of former Northern Alliance leaders who are unhappy with Karzai will announce a coalition supporting Education Minister Yunus Qanooni.
The only other mention of Qanooni is a parenthetical noting a runoff, which will be forced if Karzai fails to garner 50 percent of the vote, would likely be between Karzai and Qanooni. Given that Kavanagh thinks a runoff is the best hope to “ensure that Afghanistan’s first presidential election is truly democratic,” you’d think that the facts behind Qanooni’s candidacy would have some importance.
Here are those crucial facts: one of Qanooni’s two running mates is the defense minister Mohammed Fahim. Fahim was kicked off of Karzai’s ticket, for a very good reason: since the fall of the Taliban, he has systematically redirected money that should rightfully go to the national treasury into his own pockets.
As detailed by Afghanistan expert S. Frederick Starr in the July 14, 2003 National Review, Mohammed Fahim and his brother, Haji Hasin Fahim, have repeatedly reshaped orders from the Karzai government to benefit Fahim loyalists.
While Karzai has been scrupulously transparent in handling international aid money, Fahim is not so fastidious, and throws around cash to buy influence. Fahim offers protection in exchange for money and influence to regional warlords who take for themselves the custom duties and transit fees that are by far the most important source of revenue for a viable Afghan government (the country is located at the heart of a continental trade network).
Anne E. Brodsky, the author of the With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan — perhaps the definitive history of the long and ongoing underground struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan — told me in January that a staggering number of buildings in Kabul (whence she’d just returned) are referred to simply as “Fahim’s house.”
To the extent that Hamid Karzai has been an ineffectual leader, it is largely because Fahim and others in his coalition government have undermined him. A decisive election victory for Karzai would strengthen him, and go a long way toward the isolation of Fahim, something that is by all appearances absolutely critical to the success of the Afghan state. A runoff that results in a Qanooni victory, far from bolstering Afghan democracy, could very well strangle it in the crib.