An Afghan Revolution in the Making?

Afghanistan’s democratic opposition—a loosely affiliated but increasingly unified group of former Northern alliance fighters and politicians, Western-educated technocrats, businesspeople and military men—is facing a stalemate in what looks more and more like the Afghan endgame.

Last week, I met with three of the key players: Ahmad Wali Masoud, the former Afghan Ambassador to Britain, and one of the six brothers of the slain Afghan legend Ahmad Shah Massoud; last year’s presidential challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and deposed internal security chief Amrullah Saleh.

The three spoke with surprising unanimity , placing the lion’s share of blame on the Americans and their focus on empowering one man.

Since then, there have been several significant events in Kabul—not only did we see the unraveling of the Kabul Bank but it was also “Martyr’s Week,” commemorating the dead among the Afghan armed forces, as well as the end to Ramadan.

And events are moving so quickly here—think of the dissolving dreamscapes of “Inception”—that while Masoud, Abdullah and Saleh were all maintaining some distance on August 31, four days later, I was told, Saleh pledged his loyalty to Abdullah, and the following day, the three made a joint appearance at Kabul Education University.

At a time when the relationship between Karzai and the U.S. administration appears to have strained to a near-breaking point, and words such as “revolution” are suddenly cropping up in conversation, we should pay attention.

While the men are very different—Masoud is genial and full of smiles, Abdullah has gravitas, and Saleh is all coruscating brilliance—the three spoke with surprising unanimity about the situation as they saw it, placing the lion’s share of blame for the deteriorating situation on the Americans and their focus on empowering one man, Hamid Karzai, rather than creating a sustainable, robust political system.

“They should have supported the political process and, if that process is legitimate, then the product of that process will be legitimate,” said Dr. Abdullah.

Or as Masoud put it: “The Americans imposed Karzai on Afghanistan, they know best how to change it.”

(Saleh has an analytic intelligence of the first rank, and his remarks would have been impressive at an American war college or think tank, but the former spy chief refused to speak on the record.)

“Why did they pump billions of dollars into this country through one man, but do not promote political parties?” asked Masoud. “If they’d done that, by now we would have political parties to deal with, not one man.”

Instead, the international community has transformed an erstwhile puppet into a powerful political boss who now, in the words of Dr. Abdullah, sees the United States as “a weak entity.”

And after the September 18 Parliamentary election, the final dismantling of Afghanistan’s fragile democracy may accelerate. According to Masoud, between 100 and 150 of the 249 members of Afghanistan’s lower house currently vote with President Karzai. But that number could rise because of possible election fraud.

If this occurs, will the Afghans ever be able to get rid of President Karzai and his brothers Mahmoud and Ahmad Wali? Masoud only says, “As soon as foreign troops go, the Karzais have to go with them.”

All the opposition figures agreed that most Afghans believe in American omnipotence, and think that we have anointed Karzai: not just once—in a backroom deal at the Bonn Conference, where the Americans pressured the Afghan delegates to choose Karzai over Abdul Satar Sirat, who won many more votes—but twice, by standing by as Karzai stole re-election from Dr. Abdullah last August.

On the American side, a combination of the worst of old school American foreign policy (“he may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”) and new (“we don’t have the right to tell other cultures how to run their affairs”) leads the American military and State Department to attempt to “work with” the Karzais rather than removing them by fiat.

As Ambassador Masoud explained at our meeting at his Kabul house, the perennial American complaint, “if we get rid of Karzai, is there anyone else to deal with?” is the result of the way the international community mis-designed the Afghan electoral system, and flooded the Karzai administration with American dollars.

The result has been lack of accountability, a disaster in a country where there is little confidence in process and the rule of law.

“No Afghan ever thinks he is getting his fair share,” says a senior American official in Kabul with decades of Afghan experience.

In conversation, Massoud is more impatient than the serene Abdullah, and he disagrees with Abdullah’s decision to keep a low profile after last year’s presidential election. He thinks Abdullah should have formed a shadow cabinet. “He should have kept the momentum after the election. He went quiet after the election and that was a mistake.”

Abdullah counters that he is working on developing a party structure behind the scenes, but acknowledged that he too is worried that he has lost momentum. On September 5, he said that after the elections, we would see the re-emergence of the opposition.

Some have put their money on Saleh, who Karzai deposed in June. The brilliant but tightly wound former spy chief had been vocally campaigning against reconciliation with the Taliban but recently turned silent. Rumor has it he is a target for assassination by any number of players. (He still makes occasional dinnertime appearances at Afghanistan’s only five-star hotel, the Serena.)

“His heart is in the right place, he is a capable person, but in terms of politics he needs to take his time,” said Dr. Abdullah of Saleh—an opinion shared by Masoud who said: “Mr. Saleh was an asset as a security chief. But I am 48 and since I was 15, I was involved with the politics of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, it takes a long time to be a politician.” He paused. “Of course, in a revolution, people come from everywhere to the top.”

This was the first time I had heard an Afghan use the word “revolution.” But it may not be the last. Words like “stalemate” and “suffocating” emerged in my discussions with the three main leaders as well as several less prominent figures.

We gave the Afghans a glimpse of the promised land of democracy, but then stood by while Karzai slammed the door on their fingers. Dr. Abdullah and a couple of others suggested to me that if Afghans took to the streets to protest another fraud-ridden election, the Karzai government might engage in a bloody crackdown.

Given that U.S. and NATO troops currently back that government, such a scenario resembles a nightmare. Picture last summer’s Iranian demonstrations, but with American soldiers firing on democracy activists.

As an American, I have to hope that this will never come to pass.

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