In the Arena

Afghanistan: Here Comes Chaos

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Various sources are reporting this morning that Afghan president Hamid Karzai wants to move up the national elections from August to April or May. No surprise there. According to the Afghan constitution, Karzai’s term expires on May 21–and there was a growing movement among his (many) opponents to replace him an interim government. Indeed, it’s possible that the Afghan election officials will continue to insist on holding the elections in August, as a way of getting rid of Karzai. A chaotic power struggle could ensue–indeed, a prominent Afghan businessman told me recently, that it is likely. 

Confused? Welcome to the club. A few thoughts:

1. This spectacular bungle reveals the chaos of the Karzai regime. What sort of president can’t get his act together to plan his reelection campaign in accordance with his country’s Constitution?

2. It also reveals the startling inattention of the Bush Administration to the situation in Afghanistan. Obama Administration officials tell me they were shocked that the Bush State Department, especially Ambassador William Wood, wasn’t on top of the Constitutional mess. But then, Wood has been a dismal failure–especially compared to his predecessor, Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who successfully herded Karzai toward responsible behavior on a range of issues. Bush’s lack of interest in the government, humanitarian aid and military situations in Afghanistan in recent years has been astonishing. (For those who say that the Afghans should have handled these things themselves, in a distinctively Afghan way–yes, of course, but Karzai was, essentially, an amateur starting with no resources and almost entirely dependent on the international community when it came to setting up a state.)

3. If Karzai holds a snap election in April, there is a strong chance of violence–given the prominence of the Taliban in the countryside, especially the south. Part of the reason why everyone wanted the elections held in August or later was that the additional American brigades would be in place by then, providing some security at the ballot boxes. It will also make it difficult for the Afghan opposition to organize itself and present some sort of united front against Karzai’s corrupt and incompetent government. 

4. It’s entirely possible that the election officials–and Afghan parliament–will stick to their guns, and keep to the August date. There is, according to Afghan sources, a real desire for an “interim technocratic government” to replace Karzai in May. A prominent Afghan told me, “This is a major test for you Americans. Do you continue to support Karzai, even though he is widely despised?”

Well, who knows? That’s undoubtedly one of the questions under review by the Obama Administration now. But the Af/Pak conundrum, impossible to begin with, isn’t getting any easier.

Update: I just got off the phone with a U.S. military official dealing with Afghan policy who pointed out that the U.N., which will supervise the elections, will have a great deal to say about when they can be held. And that security will be a major factor in when the UN is willing to hold them.