The elections in Afghanistan are still months off, but recent dealings between top power brokers have fed a growing perception among ordinary Afghans and Western diplomats alike that the result is a foregone conclusion.
Over the past few weeks, President Hamid Karzai - lauded by the US government as a defender of democracy - has held a series of meetings with top military commanders famous for their defeat of Soviet forces and for running a murderous four-year government after that. Presidential spokesmen call the talks an effort at ensuring a stable election process, free of intimidation. Critics - and even the commanders themselves - say the talks were about something else, a deal to promise key cabinet posts to warlords in exchange for their support of President Karzai's candidacy.
The unwitting appearance of an inside deal with hated warlords is bringing back old cynicism here about politics, and is sending signals that Afghanistan may not be heading toward a peaceful, progressive future after all.
"People will regard this as a hidden deal, and a hidden deal at this juncture would not be good for the country," says Wali Masood, brother of the former Northern Alliance supreme commander Ahmed Shah Masood. "If you want to start a democracy, you go to the public with a team and an agenda, and let's see if the people vote for you or not."
Free elections had been touted as the turning point where ordinary Afghans could start to map their own future. That was the idea at least when Afghan leaders and UN mediators met in Bonn in December 2001 to decide on a political blueprint for the war-torn nation.
The latest round of talks between Karzai and the commanders was Wednesday night. They could not be happening at a worse time, says one Western diplomat. "People are motivated by this election. The number of registered voters is increasing, the number of women voters is increasing and higher than expected," he says. "But now, there is a fear among people, and they need reassurance that they are not being taken for a ride."
What makes all this more confusingis that all the participants of these talks have a different view of what has been decided. Mujahideen commanders, for instance, say they have been promised 50 percent of the cabinet posts, including the most important ministries of interior, defense, justice, and finance. Karzai spokesmen insist that there is no "deal," except that the commanders agree to support the election process and Karzai's candidacy.
"It's not a negotiation, really," says Javed Luddin, presidential spokesman. "The commanders said they thought they would rather support the president, ... and stand alongside the president rather than against him."
Mr. Luddin says that jihadi commanders - including Abdul Rab Rasool Sayaaf, Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim, Vice President Rashid Dostum, Herat Governor Ismail Khan - tried to unify behind a single candidate of their own to confront Karzai, but could not set aside personal rivalries to compromise on a single candidate.
"Elections should be a unifying step rather than a dividing step," adds Luddin. "If these forces felt left outside or feel threatened as they face inevitable defeat, they could resort to a dangerous agenda," including armed rebellion.
But sources close to the commanders say that it was Karzai who came to them, and who agreed to give half of the cabinet posts to former mujahideen.
"In my view, Karzai has lost the trust of the people," says Abdul Hafiz Mansour, a member of a party allied with the commanders. "Mr. Karzai [has] tried to have power in his hands. We don't want only one person to have power. We want our country to have power."
And far from voicing support for Karzai, Mansour says the commanders demanded that Karzai fire some Afghan expatriate "technocrats," including the ministers of finance and interior. The commanders also demanded that the government stop calling them "warlords" and stop "working against the rules of Islam." Mansour adds, "They haven't mentioned they would support Karzai in the election at all."
For the time being, Western diplomats and UN representatives have avoided commenting, but privately some diplomats voice concern that the process of democracy could be derailed by the impression of a backroom deal.
Vikram Parekh, senior analyst for the nonprofit International Crisis Group, says the big problem is that any deal could have a destabilizing effect because inevitably somebody will be left out.
"Somebody is going to feel shortchanged," says Mr. Parekh. "I don't think that we ever had a chance of a free and fair election here, certainly not in the absence of a trained national police force, without adequate peacekeepers in the provinces, without international monitors in the provinces."
"The best we could expect was the veneer of legitimacy," adds Parekh. "But now the cynicism of the people is tremendous."