Archive for September, 2010

Afghanistan’s Experiment in Democracy

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

This iftar (Ramadan break fast) dinner for 1,800 people at Kabul’s Ouranos Hotel is barely over when the campaigning begins. The brightly lit, high-ceiling hall is full of parliamentary candidates trying to hand their cards to possible supporters.

From amateurishly printed black and white business cards to sophisticated small booklets with pages of color photos, the campaign literature is a key tool in a contest with huge numbers of candidates. Here, in Kabul Province, 553 men and 109 women are competing for 33 seats, 9 of which are reserved for women. (Currently there are 68 women MPs in the 249-member lower house, more than the 64 mandated by quota.) Candidates’ cards bear not only their photograph and mobile phone numbers but also an neshan entihabati, or election symbol and number, so that voters have a chance of locating them in the huge, multipage ballot. The symbols – say, two telephones, or three airplanes – are to aid the many illiterate and innumerate voters.

Tonight’s iftar dinner of kabuli pilau, meat curry, potato curry, rice, and roast chicken, funded by the Massoud Foundation, is a de facto campaign event for the democratic opposition to President Hamid Karzai.

Such dinners are a key part of campaigning in Afghanistan, a visible sign of power and cohesion. A group or individual that can afford to feed you is one that will safeguard your interests.

Two of the women around my table fend off a man in traditional shalwar kameez bearing the ubiquitous cards. “We are also candidates,” one of the women explains to the man, smiling. Five of the seven women around the table are running, and another is the daughter of a candidate.

The problem here tonight is the same that’s in Afghanistan as a whole: There are too many contestants for the September 18 elections. The entire 249-person Wolesi Jirga or lower house of Parliament is up for grabs, and most of the incumbents are running for re-election. The requirements for challengers are so minimal – showing 1,000 supporters’ voter registration cards and paying $600 – that more than 2,500 people are running.

The election is widely expected to be marred by fraud on the part of President Karzai’s supporters and by Taliban intimidation. Candidates affiliated with Karzai operate with impunity. Though there’s supposed to be a vetting process to exclude criminals, one Karzai-linked MP, Mullah Tarakhel, shot five people, killing three, in a traffic dispute a few weeks ago. He hasn’t been removed from the roster of candidates, much less jailed. Nevertheless, these women candidates are trying hard, plastering the city with billboards that cost the locally significant amount of $100 a month and holding countless meetings with supporters.

All of these women insist, against the odds, that they have good chances. I ask them how many election monitors they have as a rough benchmark of their appeal; candidates are entitled to a monitor at each polling place. (How this can play out with 664 candidates in Kabul is unclear.) Numbers ranged from 100 down to 30.

Some candidates have extensive political experience or a high profile. Kabul-born Shakeela Naweed has been the president of the women’s and human rights commission for Afghan exiles in Peshawar, and she has 18 years of government experience. She claims 100 election monitors, and hands me a well-organized single page Dari leaflet detailing her biography, “cultural activity,” and 14 reasons to vote for her. Her confident, perky daughter Mina, an MBA student in Pakistan now, is working on her campaign and helped me conduct interviews in a mix of English and Dari.

Shahallan Mayhan Doost, a lawyer who has been the minister of women’s affairs for Kabul Province for the last four years, has 80 monitors and thinks she has a good chance because she is well-known. But, she said in English, fraud in the election “is very problem.” The election will not be “shafaf,” or transparent, she fears.

Brigadier General Nazeefa Zaki, another candidate, has had a 29- year career in the Afghan National Army in their equivalent of the Judge Advocate Genera’s office. “It is based on destiny if the candidates are winners or losers,” the heavyset woman says rather grimly.

The most outgoing woman at the table is the ebullient Parween Sufi, a teacher who quickly tells me that her singer son appeared on the popular TV show “Afghan Star.” Though she claimed but 20 monitors, she said she was “100 percent sure” she would be elected. “Love you!” she called out in English as she left.

Sometimes a candidate’s strength isn’t on the surface. When Naheed Nouri introduces herself as a kindergarten teacher, I’m initially underwhelmed. But an Afghan-American mentor to women candidates, Nasreen Gross, explains to me, “This women has given sewing machines to 3,000 women to sew for her. She can bring 3,000 women with her.”

Nasreen – whose unusual surname comes from her having married an American academic she met at the American University of Beirut – is a well-known figure here. An “Islamic feminist” who refuses to wear a headscarf, Gross gets away with it in this form-obsessed country because of her street cred as a member of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets and her family background. She’s a sayeeda, a female descendent of Mohammad, and her mother, Roquia Farhang, was one of the first women members of Parliament in the1960s.

Nasreen complains tonight that the women candidates have all been placed in one marginal area of the hall. I’m more amazed that some men stop by to say hello to us and that a man is sitting at Nasreen’s table – this is, after all, a country where weddings are divided into separate gender gatherings.

In July and August, Nasreen coached more than 120 women Parliamentary candidates on campaign basics at a series of workshops in Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif. As I saw when I visited one of the most successful Afghan women politicians, Qadria Yazdan Parost, campaigning Afghan-style is pretty different.

Qadria, a strikingly attractive brunette who seems to be in her early 40s, was a television presenter here a few years ago. She has name recognition. Her husband lives in the Netherlands (he imports cars into Afghanistan) and Qadria’s campaign meeting took place in their very large new villa.

Qadria’s polish and confidence are immediately apparent, and she shows me a gift from Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. But the supporters who enter in clusters of ten or twelve are nearly all in traditional shalwar kameez and have non-urban faces. One heads the shopkeepers’ union in an outlying district of Kabul, pledging the support of 500 shop owners who will put her posters in their windows; another is a gold jewelry seller, a lucrative occupation here. There are at least two representatives of groups of youth supporting her – one claims 6,000 voters behind it.

Qadria told me that she also has many women supporters, but that many don’t have voter registration cards, as their families won’t allow it.

She’s unusual in being able to explain to me clearly, in a mix of Dari and English, what she has done for her constituents over the last five years to justify re-election: She has helped bring electricity to the gold-sellers, a major source of support, she reduced their tax from 18 percent to 1 percent, and she prevented destruction of historic buildings in Kabul’s historic quarter. She admits to having only received 3,000 votes in the 2004 election, but hopes for 15,000 this time. “I’ve been campaigning for five years,” she tells me.

Qadria said in English, “I am an optimist person.” And then she continues, in words that express the melancholy underlying this election for many Afghans, “I don’t know what happened here [in Afghanistan]. Because of fear of a civil war people will take a lot from this government. This government does very bad things, they are always wrong.”

An Afghan Revolution in the Making?

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

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.