Afghans at the polls
The Economist

Afghans have much to feel angry about, as they take part in a presidential election.

EIGHT years after the Taliban were blasted from power by American jets, and despite the splashing of $32 billion of foreign aid on Afghanistan, there are many reasons for Afghans to feel angry. A failure to provide the security they crave—despite the deployment of over 100,000 ISAF and American troops, more than 120 of whom have been killed in the past six weeks—is the most obvious. Almost two-thirds of Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest places, is considered too dangerous for aid agencies to reach.

Civilian casualties of the fighting, of which there have been over 1,000 this year, are another source of resentment—and another motive for the insurgency in Pushtun society, where vengeance is justice. Nearly 60% of these deaths were in fact caused by the Taliban and allied Pushtun militants, through their increasing use of terrorist tactics, including over 90 suicide-blasts in Afghanistan this year. But misdirected American air strikes, which have many times destroyed wedding-parties and sleeping villagers in Afghanistan are the main focus for Afghan rage. Acknowledging this, Hamid Karzai, the president, on the campaign trial has often been critical of foreign troops.

The grudge-list goes on. Afghans, who welcomed this intervention in 2001 with outstretched arms, tell stories of American and British soldiers barging into cloistered Pushtun women’s quarters, at night, with unclean dogs. If often exaggerated, these tales are rooted in truth. Casual detentions of thousands of Afghan men, on no good evidence, have also done damage.

With too little knowledge and too few troops, America and its allies have often relied on malign local proxies. Underlining the difficulty of the task, many of these held government posts. Between 2002 and 2006 in southern Uruzgan, for example, American special-forces soldiers were persuaded by the controversial then-governor, Jan Mohammad Khan, that a rival Pushtun tribe, the Ghilzais, supported the Taliban. In the mayhem that ensured, this soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Afghanistan, it seems wise to assume, is at a critical point. The news is not all bad. Kabul, recently reinforced by some 4,000 freshly-trained police, feels a bit safer these days. And 21,000 extra American troops, including 17,000 already dispatched to Helmand and elsewhere, could begin to show similar results. Mr Karzai’s cabinet has also improved, with half a dozen technocrats recruited in the past year to the main economic ministries.

Yet it seems clear that the international effort to bring stability to Afghanistan, in which a strong, somewhat liberal and democratic state can take root, is failing. Among a relatively few foreign experts on the country the mood is bleak. “We think we’re at the centre of things, but we’re not, we’re at the margins of Afghanistan,” says Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a think-tank.

“And we’re so busy having meetings and discussing our plans we’re not even seeing what’s coming at us.” Complete failure—withdrawal by NATO and a return to civil war—seems unimaginable. But failure of some lesser sort, still undefined, looks increasingly inevitable.

However angry and disappointed, most Afghans still back the reconstruction effort. A recent poll for the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed them to be optimistic on a range of related issues, including security and the economy. General Stanley McChrystal, the overall American commander in Afghanistan, finds succour in this. Asked whether he considered his mission possible, he said: “Afghanistan is this tremendously complex, Mad Max, utterly devastated society that’s got to be repaired, and I don’t know if we can fix it. But we can’t ignore it. And I believe there are certain forces here, maybe just the will of the people, fatigue with war—there is a tremendous desire to sort it out.”

The re-election of Mr Karzai, a clear favourite in this week’s vote, would in part be an expression of that desire. A small-time leader in the anti-Soviet jihad, from a noble Pushtun family, he was installed as Afghanistan’s leader by America in 2001. As a symbol, then, of international support for the country—and not for anything he achieved, while mostly confined for fear of assassination in his Kabul palace—Mr Karzai went on to win Afghanistan’s inaugural presidential election in 2004. He has achieved little since, presiding over a spread of narco-corruption by which he seems blithely unperturbed. In July Mr Karzai pardoned five well-connected drug-traffickers who had been imprisoned for up to 18 years for attempting to trade heroin for two truckloads of submachineguns. These convictions had been considered a ground-breaking success for Afghan counter-narcotics efforts.

As a hedge against wavering foreign support, Mr Karzai has also favoured detested warlords—including several whom the Taliban were first launched, in the mid-1990s, to eliminate. To boost his chances of re-election, he has formed alliances with Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord linked to the slaughter of 2,000 Taliban prisoners, and Mohammad Mohaqeq, a Hazara strongman, who claims to have been promised five Hazara cabinet seats for his support. As a campaign adviser, Mr Karzai enlisted Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Islamist who welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996. In an IRI poll released last week, Afghans said that of all their politicians, they disliked Mr Dostum, Mr Mohaqeq and Mr Sayyaf most.

The poll predicted that Mr Karzai would win 44% of the vote—a strong lead over his rivals, but not the outright majority he would need to avoid a second-round run-off, provisionally set for October 1st. At the same time, IRI found that 83% of Afghans thought their country needed to change direction. A surge of support for Mr Karzai’s main challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a champion of the Tajik minority, hints at what sort of change they would like. Unlike Mr Karzai, he has campaigned across the country, rallying Afghans and offering them ideas—some good, some bad—on how to solve their problems. In fact in Afghanistan’s main cities, the election has fuelled lively debate, for which Dr Abdullah, and two lesser challengers, Ramazan Bashardost and Ashraf Ghani, deserve credit. Yet even without massive rigging in favour of Mr Karzai—which was expected in Pushtun areas where independent observers will fear to go—he was considered likeliest to win. His reputation, though fading, as a peaceable Pushtun, a national unifier and, above all, as the likeliest guarantor of the foreigners’ shining promise to Afghanistan may best explain this.

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