In effect, there are three main candidates running in Afghanistan’s presidential election this week: the former diplomat Abdullah Abdullah, the former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, and Zalmai Rassoul – who was, until last year, Foreign Minister in the government of Hamid Karzai. Rassoul is widely perceived as a stand-in for Karzai, who can’t stand again for re-election. In opinion polls this year, Rassoul has regularly come in third. Given his connections – and given the rampant fraud committed by the Karzai government during the last election in 2009 – it is not surprising that foreign observers are picking Rassoul as the man to beat. Already Rassoul has been the subject of a formal complaint concerning his campaign’s alleged abuse of government resources.
However, the first round of voting on April 5 may be close enough that no candidate will win over 50% of the vote, thus necessitating a run-off contest between the two frontrunners. Ultimately, a small group of influential warlords will probabluy decide the result. Whatever happens in the ballot box, conservative warlords such as Abdul Rasul Sayyaf will in all likelihood, determine the outcome:
Sayyaf, a veteran of the jihad against Soviet occupation and a hardline Islamist once close to al-Qaeda, steps to the microphone through a phalanx of armed guard the crowd of 5000 takes up a familiar cry.
One man raises his fist and shouts: “Death to America, death to England.”
Hundreds of hands are thrust into the air as the response echoes around the rally in Parwan province, all captured on video. “Death, death, death,” they shout. Sayyaf is the man who invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan and was mentor to [Khalif Sheikh Mohammed] the mastermind who planned 9/11. Yet 12 years after international troops forced the Taliban from Kabul and after billions of dollars has been delivered in aid, he is a contender for president and one of a handful of warlords well-placed to act as kingmakers.
The other likely king-makers are equally unsavoury. Abdul Rashid Dostom is an Uzbek warlord with an especially bloody track record and is standing as vice-presidential candidate on the ticket of the economist Ashraf Ghani. In the mid 2000s, Ghani was being seriously touted as Kofi Annan’s successor as secretary-general of the United Nations.
One could go on with examples from the litany of ballot fraud, corruption and intimidation likely to characterise this election. It is worth recalling simply because the rebuilding of Afghanistan has cost such vast amounts of money – $4-6 trillion according to this 2013 calculation by Harvard University and hundreds of thousands of lives. A further study by Brown University also puts the cost of the Afghan war at around $4 trillion. Besides the human cost in death, injury and suffering, the financial costs to the US of its involvemernt in Afghanistan and other foreign wars will continue for decades to come. Some 150 years later, the US government is still reportedly paying benefits to a couple of relatives of those affected by service in the American Civil War.
Has all the effort that the US – and New Zealand – have poured into Afghanistan really been worth it? Reportedly, only 25 per cent of the voting public in this Afghanistan election believe that the ballot will be free and fair. Of the eleven main candidates six are either warlords, or have them as running mates. This seems to be the best democracy that money – and blood – can buy in Afghanistan today, as the direct military involvement by foreigners winds down.