The Oct. 10 presidential elections in Afghanistan provided George Bush with potent campaign trail propaganda. He repeatedly invoked the 10 million newly registered voters there, and the icing on the cake was the apparent victory by the US favorite, incumbent interim president Hamid Karzai. But the elections actually revealed how precariously Afghanistan is poised on the brink of ethnic war.

The vote came just days after a modicum of peace had been restored in the western city of Herat, where Karzai removed the local governor, Ismail Khan, a veteran Tajik warlord whose forces had been fighting with those of rival Pashtun warlord Amanullah Khan in recent weeks. Over 4,000 Pashtun families are said to have fled Herat since Ismail Khan took power there after the fall of the Taliban.

The presidential candidates largely came from ethnic-based parties which double as warlord militias with their roots in the Mujahedeen war of the 1980s. Karzai’s major rival was Yunus Qanooni, a former member of Karzai’s interim cabinet and a civilian leader of Jamiat-i-Islami, the main Tajik party/militia of the Mujahedeen and later the Northern Alliance. Other major candidates in the field of 16 included Abdul Rashid Dostum, former interim deputy defense minister and military/political boss of Junbish-i-Milli, the major Uzbek party/militia (who is accused of grave rights abuses in his northern fiefdom); and Muhammad Mohaqeq, interim planning minister and a mainstay of the Hazara party/militia, Hezb-i-Wahdat.

The more pluralist and secular candidates not linked to Mujahedeen parties received considerably fewer votes and less attention in the western media. These included the only woman candidate, Masooda Jalal, described by the New York Times as an "urban Tajik" and a "technocratic candidate like Karzai." Women’s rights were actually far more emphasized by Latif Pedram, a leftist writer and philosopher who returned from exile in France to run as an independent–and received even less international attention.

The US was open in its support for Karzai, a member of the traditional Pashtun elite whose father had served in the Afghan Parliament under King Mohammad Zahir Shah. US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad met with many of the candidates privately, and was accused of pressuring Karzai’s rivals to drop from the race (a charge he denied).

Guerilla harassment by the Taliban and allied ultra-Islamist groups attempted to disrupt the elections. So-called "night letters" warning women not to vote appeared, especially in the Pashtun-dominated south. "Your blood is on your own hands if you leave your houses," read one typical message. Women made up 41% of the registered voters nation-wide, but under 10% in much of the Pashtun region, which had been the Taliban’s heartland.

On Oct. 6, Karzai’s running mate Ahmed Zia Massoud (brother of the legendary late Northern Alliance leader and Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud) narrowly escaped death in a remote-controlled bomb attack on his convoy in Badakshan province. On election eve, Afghanistan’s major roads were shut down by the army and police, and tight security measures imposed where-ever the government has a modicum of control. Nonetheless, overnight rocket attacks were reported in several cities–one even hit close to the US military base in Kabul.

In the wake of the vote, Karzai’s 15 rival candidates threatened not to recognize the election, citing numerous accounts of irregularities–such as indelible ink used to mark voter’s thumbs after polling proving not to be indelible, allowing multiple votes. On Oct. 13, UN officials agreed to review 43 complaints of irregularities, prompting the candidates to back down from their threats and allowing counting to proceed.

Receiving far less international media play were widespread reports of warlord factions intimidating voters. On the eve of the election, Human Rights Watch issues a 52-page report, "The Rule of the Gun: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in the Run-Up to Afghanistan’s Presidential Election," documenting the atmosphere of repression and fear in many areas of the country. The report contends voters had little faith in ballot secrecy, and faced threats and bribes from militia factions.

Although it failed to make headlines, the New York Times reported Oct. 1 that the 10 million-voters-figure repeatedly boasted by Bush actually exceeds the estimated eligible population–indicating that the supposed of evidence of democracy on the march is actually evidence of large-scale electoral fraud.

Violence again escalated in the election’s aftermath. On Oct 19, an election commission jeep was blown up in a roadside blast in Paktika province, killing five. On Oct. 29, three foreign election workers were kidnapped right in heavily-policed Kabul. They are still being held, apparently by an extremist Taliban faction called the Jaish-i-Muslimin.

On Nov. 1, presumed Taliban guerillas attacked US troops patrolling in Paktika near the Pakistan border, killing one and injuring two more with gunfire and rockets. That same day, in another sign of the central government’s fragility, Afghan National Army troops clashed with police in a gun-battle in Zabul province, leaving several casualties and prompting US forces to step in to restore order. The incident was apparently sparked when the soldiers stopped the police at a checkpoint in the provincial capital of Qalat and ordered them to disarm. US troops and helicopters are still patrolling the city. Also that day, Afghan army soldiers opened fire on provincial militiamen in the southern city of Kandahar, killing two and injuring one.

On Oct. 30, when Karzai’s victory seemed clear, US Gen. James Jones, NATO’s top commander for Europe, arrived in Afghanistan to meet with the president-elect. On the table were plans to merge the US-led security force in Afghanistan with the UN-mandated peacekeeping force into a single NATO-led force–and expanding the mandate for the peacekeepers beyond Kabul to the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden, who shocked the world with a new video communique days before the US presidential elections, is believed to be hiding just across the border in the mountains of Pakistan, where Taliban-inspired groups have regional control.

Religious-political violence is rapidly spreading throughout Pakistan. A grim dialectic of Sunni-Shi’ite bloodshed has claimed several lives there in recent weeks. On Oct. 3, a suicide bombing at a Shi’ite mosque in Sialkot killed 31. On Oct. 8, a car bomb attack on a Sunni gathering in Multan killed 40 and wounded over 100. On Oct. 10, pro-Taliban Sunni cleric Mufti Muhammad Jamil Ahmed and his aide were killed by a gunman in Karachi. On Oct. 11, a suicide bombing at a Shi’ite mosque in Lahore killed three (not counting the bomber). The destabilization of this key regional US ally could make the apparent US victory in Afghanistan an horrifically Phyrric one. (Bill Weinberg)

RESOURCES: Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan on the Human Rights Watch report


Compiled by WORLD WAR 3 REPORT, Nov. 6, 2004

Reprinting permissible with attribution