Karzai worried about electoral fraud... really?

By , Staff writer

No, not really, though the official line is that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has delayed the opening of the new parliament by a month to help an electoral fraud investigation.

If he sticks to that schedule, five months will have passed without a parliament. In that period, Karzai has ruled without any oversight at all (not that the last parliament had much real input in policy making). The only point for the delay -- requested by a panel of investigators selected by Mr. Karzai -- is to toss out some of the winners

It's no secret that the parliamentary election was riddled with fraud. Ditto, of course, for the election that returned Mr. Karzai -- once described by US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry as "inadequate strategic partner" -- to power. Mr. Karzai certainly won't be voiding his own election win, nor does it seem likely this process will toss out close allies.

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The vote buying, intimidation and ballot-stuffing that accompanied the September election was an equal opportunity affair, with winners often simply outbidding losers -- many of whom remain waiting in the wings, and would probably be more acquiescent to President Karzai's wishes than some of the current winners.

Ahead of the vote, the Afghan electoral complaints commission was supposed to disqualify militia leaders from running. Ahead of the election some candidates were disqualified, but as I wrote at the time: "None of the well-known commanders who many Afghans believe committed war crimes in the past were on the list. And it appears that many of those disqualified aren't involved with militias." Who drew up the list? Afghan officials who answer to Mr. Karzai, not the supposedly independent commission, electoral officials told me.

Does any of this matter? The good news is that the Afghan parliament doesn't really do much. Under the current Afghan constitution, which the US helped write, the parliament has limited powers. As a matter of practice the outgoing parliament was largely a rubber stamp for Karzai viewed by Afghans as packed full of warlords and opportunists simply there to sell votes. That image could change, with time, but the long delay is likely to feed the narrative that the parliament is nationally irrelevant.

One meaningful problem is that of the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that Mr. Karzai belongs to and whose members make up the bulk of the Taliban. Though Afghanistan's largest ethnic-group, the election cost them their majority in parliament (since Taliban intimidation and propaganda were most effective within the sea they swim in).

In Ghazni, a majority Pashtun province, ethnic-Hazara's won all 11 parliamentary seats. The Shiite Hazara have been traditionally marginalized in Afghanistan and are commonly viewed with scorn by Pashtuns. Karzai would like to change that, for both personal and strategic reasons (since a parliament that appears hostile to Pashtun interests isn't helpful when you're trying to make piece with a group of Pashtuns).

By all accounts, US forces have been winning tactical victories in Afghanistan lately over the Taliban (here's a fascinating, highly detailed back and forth between Joshua Foust and Andrew Exum about US counterinsurgency efforts in the south of the country). But the core of what the US is trying to do, as I understand it, is to create the conditions for accountable, responsive legal and political institutions that will win the vast majority of Afghanistan's people to the central government's side.

The weakness of the parliament and the corrupt process by which it was chosen are more evidence that this hasn't happened. And the rank odor around Afghan politics is precisely the sort of thing Taliban ideologues use to convince average people that an Islamist approach is the answer to the country's problems.

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