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Political Tea Leaves in Afghanistan

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: September 11, 2008

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On most matters of social development, from health care to literacy, the United States and Afghanistan are worlds apart. But on presidential politics, the disparate democracies both find themselves enmeshed in prolonged electoral contests with potentially transformative results. A year before Afghans cast ballots for their president, voters, politicians, and analysts already are dissecting President Hamid Karzai's political record. And like the American contest, the race for Afghanistan's top office often is cast as a referendum on the country's future.

In five years as Afghanistan's first democratically elected president, analysts view Karzai's record as decidedly mixed. Afghan officials point to progress expanding citizens' access to health care, education, and a healthy growth in tax revenue. According to the International Monetary Fund's most recent figures, Afghanistan's gross domestic product (GDP) increased 8.2 percent between 2006 and 2007, to $7.7 billion (PDF). And in a new 2008 survey of the opium trade, the United Nations credited strong leadership (as well as bad weather) for a 19 percent decline in opium poppy cultivation from 2007. The majority of the heroin-derived crop is now confined to the country's southwestern provinces (PDF), where permanent Taliban settlements and organized crime rings remain active.

Karzai has vowed to build on these gains. In an interview with the Associated Press on August 19, Karzai confirmed he would seek reelection. Afghanistan's constitution allows for presidential candidates to run for two consecutive five-year terms (PDF); Karzai was elected to his first term in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote. But Karzai's mandate has not translated into unwavering support. An October 2007 opinion poll (PDF) by the Asia Foundation found that despite generally positive feelings about the direction of their country, the vast majority of Afghans felt the government cared little about the public's problems. Of late, Karzai has appeared intent on challenging those opinions by highlighting popular nationalist themes. Reacting to continued anger over errant U.S. air strikes, including an August 22 strike in Herat that may have killed dozens of children (Reuters)—the Pentagon disputes the death toll—Karzai fired two senior Afghan army officers for "negligence" (al-Jazeera). Karzai's government has also called for a status of forces agreement to govern the presence of U.S. and NATO troops (Guardian).

Some aspects of Afghanistan's troubles are beyond Karzai's control. Resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda elements have regrouped in neighboring Pakistan, and the lawless border region has become a staging ground for the planning and execution of attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials are unwilling or unable to reign in the militants, according to an investigation by the New York Times' Dexter Filkins. To fill the void President Bush has said he will increase the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in coming months, and has called for a massive increase in the size of the Afghan National Army. U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, meanwhile, told House lawmakers on September 10 that he is commissioning a strategy overhaul for the Afghan war effort, one that covers both sides of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. "I'm not convinced we're winning it in Afghanistan; I am convinced we can" (Stars and Stripes), he said.

But the help can't arrive soon enough for critics and potential challengers, who see many reasons to dump Karzai. They cite a surge in insurgent violence (CDI), drug-related corruption (NYT), and high poverty rates among them. Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik with roots in the Soviet-era insurgency whose 1996 ouster cleared the way for the Taliban's rise, called Karzai's tenure "a great tragedy" (Bloomberg). Rabbani says Afghans are "looking for a change," and opposition candidates are already stepping forward to offer it.

One announced candidate is former Attorney General Abdul Jabbar Sabit, an anti-corruption crusader, whom Karzai tossed from office a day after announcing plans to run (Pajhwok). (Karzai claimed Sabit's presidential bid was illegal). A host of other current and former Afghan politicians have also announced or appear poised to do so, according to a list of "contenders" compiled by the Afghan news website Quqnoos. Other names cited among Afghan political analysts as possible contenders include former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad (though neither man has announced plans to run).

Whether Afghanistan will see a strong opposition ticket, or even hold free and fair elections, is another matter. But as some U.S.-based Afghan experts see it, elections won't solve Afghanistan's problems. Seth G. Jones of the RAND Corporation says Karzai remains the most popular politician in a war-ravaged country, is Pashtun, and owns broad multiethnic support. "In other words," Jones writes in Foreign Policy, "Karzai is still the best game in town."

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