The expected victory of Hamid Karzai in next month’s presidential elections in Afghanistan will trigger a violent backlash from ordinary Afghans, a top US commander in the country has warned.
Although the Taliban have threatened to disrupt polling day itself, David Haight, the US colonel who is in charge of pacifying two strategically vital provinces on the southern doorstep of the capital, Kabul, says he is far more concerned about the aftermath of the election.
“I think the people down here are disgruntled with the government because there feeling is, look, ‘I’m just right to the south, I’m frigging 40 miles away and you couldn’t help me?'” said Haight.
“I think that apathy is going to turn into some anger because when the administration doesn’t change, and I don’t think anyone believes now that Karzai is going to lose … I think there is going to be frustration from people who realise there is not going to be a change. The bottom line is they are going to be thinking: ‘four more years of this crap?'” Haight said.
An opinion poll last month suggested support for Karzai had slumped in the four and a half years since he became Afghanistan’s first democratically elected leader, but most western diplomats still believe he will easily win, possibly in the first round.
According to a poll of 3,200 Afghans from across the country, carried out by the International Republican Institute, Karzai can expect to receive 33% of the vote, well below the half of all votes required to win the first round of the election, on 20 August. In the 2004 election Karzai won 54% of the vote. But support for his opponents is considerably lower, and the likelihood remains that he will win comfortably.
Widely blamed for much of the corruption in modern Afghanistan, Karzai has nonetheless succeeded in gaining the support of most of the country’s most important ethnic and tribal power-brokers, including a number of unsavoury characters accused of human rights violations.
The only doubt is whether Afghanistan’s tribal warlords can deliver the necessary votes to Karzai, or whether the widespread disillusion with the corrupt state of the regime will lead voters to defy tribal and clan lines and back one of the opposition candidates.
There are also concerns about the independence of the election commission, which opponents accuse Karzai of stacking with loyalists.
Ashraf Ghani, former finance minister once tipped as a replacement for Kofi Annan as UN secretary general, is one of two leading opposition candidates. He is about to hit the campaign trail, but has limited access to television, no official protection, and no helicopter. He echoed Haight’s view that the Karzai administration had failed to deliver on security: “In 2001 the Afghan people expected state-building and received bad governance and corruption. Now as a result of the failure of this government and international community, they are demonstrating again the desire for legitimate and accountable state institutions.”
Haight is the commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division in Logar and neighbouring Wardak. The two provinces are home to an estimated 862,000 people and are strategically vital because not only do they make up the southern doorstep of the capital, they also straddle two of the most important roads in Afghanistan. These were built at huge international expense to kick-start trade, but were swiftly taken over by Taliban insurgents and used as rapid access points for suicide bombers targeting the city.
Haight and his men were diverted from a slated tour in Iraq, allowing the number of US troops in the two provinces to soar from 300 to 3,000. The huge increase in numbers had an immediate impact, allowing the US to move beyond simply killing the odd Taliban, while leaving vast swathes of territory untouched, to a classic counter-insurgency campaign of clearing whole areas of insurgents, and then keeping them out by setting up company-strong combat outposts.
But the active insurgency on the doorstep of Kabul has created panic among many elite Afghans who fear that even with international support the government will not prove capable of stopping a movement that had publicly announced it’s ambition to “encircle” Kabul the year before.
“The Taliban were never really threatening Kabul, but if you create the perception that you can do that, then you are winning,” said Haight.