In 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore were the winner and loser in a very close US presidential election, with Gore getting 48.4% and Bush getting 47.9% of the vote amid irregularities and fraud. The issue was ultimately decided not by recounting the votes, but by a decision of the US Supreme Court not to count the votes. This was irregular, bizarre, and made a mockery of the election. But the recent Afghan election was worse.
Take all of the despair of those who realized their votes didn’t count, all the disillusionment in a nontransparent electoral system that came about in the US in 2000, and imagine a few changes. Imagine a foreign country, say the UK, coming to broker a power-sharing deal between Gore and Bush. Imagine the deal involving making emergency changes to the US constitution in order to accommodate the ambitions of both the winner and the loser in the contest. Imagine the loser of the contest insisting not only on the nullification of the electoral outcome, but also that the outcome never be made public. That gets us closer – but the recent Afghan election was still worse.
Some background: In October of 2001, the declared winner of the US election, George W. Bush, sent troops to invade Afghanistan and bring about a regime change in Kabul. Most of Afghanistan had, from 1996-2001, been under the control of the Taliban, a Pakistan-sponsored group that was battling for control of Afghanistan’s territory and resources. The Taliban’s opponents were a coalition of commanders, who combined military, territorial, and business power, and legal and illegal activity, in a way that got them characterized as ‘warlords’. The warlords had ruled in Kabul, destroyed and plundered their parts of Afghanistan from 1992-1996, and still held parts of Afghanistan in 2001. Bush’s invasion sent the Taliban into retreat and the warlords back to power. The Taliban went first across the border into Pakistan and then, years later, returned to fight the Afghan government and the US from base areas in southern Afghanistan.
From the US invasion in 2001 until now, Afghanistan has been ruled by a different kind of coalition. The warlords were back. The US-created Afghan government, led by President Karzai, tried to absorb the warlords into it, with some success. The US oversaw the appointment of the warlords to the government, the writing of the constitution, and two electoral exercises that brought those warlords into the legislature, with Karzai at its helm. Military force was supplied by the US military (and its US, Canadian, and other partners), which fought the Taliban from its own fortified military bases and conducted air strikes throughout southern Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s border areas. The economy was also organized by the US and NATO partners, who channeled funds on a neoliberal, charity-driven model favoring nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) over government programs. The Afghan government was simultaneously supported by the West militarily and economically and also derided as being corrupt and ineffective.
The US got its bases established in central Asia and assured influence in the region, but also lectured Afghanistan on how it would have to stand on its own feet eventually – standing, presumably, against the US ally, Pakistan, and the Taliban. 2014 was set as the date for the US withdrawal, and even though it would be a typically ambiguous withdrawal, with troops and bases remaining, it was a symbolic and important date, and the 2014 Afghan election was set to be an important one. If successful, it would be a peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another. After 13 years of occupation, the US would be able to claim that it had successfully installed a democracy, at least in the most limited sense of a ‘democracy’ as a country that has one elected government succeeding another.
What Afghanistan got instead does not have a precise political science word, but there is no way that it could be called a democracy in any sense of the word.
The Taliban had threatened voters and attempted to disrupt the elections, but people voted anyway. According to the Afghan constitution, if a candidate does not get an absolute majority in the first round, there is a second round with the first and second place candidates on the ballot. In the first round of voting in April 2014, Abdallah Abdallah won 45% of the vote, Ashraf Ghani 31.56%.
Both leading candidates have connections to the warlords. Abdallah Abdallah was close to Ahmed Shah Masoud, who led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban until his assassination just before 9/11, 2001, and campaigned on this proximity to the famous warlord. Ashraf Ghani has weaker ties to the warlords, but his party includes general Rashid Dostum, one of the longest-surviving and best-organized warlords (see Anthony Giustozzi’s book Empires of Mud for background on Dostum and other warlords). Ghani campaigned as a free-marketeer, close to the West, interested in economic development and anti-corruption. He even has a TED talk, a pretty solid pro-West credential (https://www.ted.com/talks/ashraf_ghani_on_rebuilding_broken_states).
It was the second round, in June, that things started to go wrong. It became clear early in the second round that Ghani was going to win. The preliminary results should have been announced in July, but they were delayed. When they were announced, with Ghani at 56.44% and Abdallah at 43.56%, Abdallah Abdallah said he would refuse to accept the result, claiming fraud. Given that Afghanistan’s new government would have to either fight or negotiate with the Taliban (most likely do both) and could ill afford an absolute opposition from a powerful faction, Abdallah Abdallah must have decided that he had enough power to dictate terms regardless of the electoral outcome. A UN-supervised audit of the votes was organized, and was completed in September.
What was the result of the UN-supervised audit of the votes? We may never know, because the US negotiated a power-sharing agreement, making Ghani President and creating a new post for Abdallah to fill called “Chief Executive Officer”. One of the clauses of the agreement, insisted on by Abdallah, was that the results of the recount not be made public. Not only do Afghan’s votes not count, the counts can’t even be known.
Some of the Western commentary has been as strange as the election itself. The NYT editorial on the topic (“A Shaky Step Forward in Afghanistan”, Sept 21/14) simultaneously praises Kerry for negotiating the deal while calling it “far from democratic” and noting that “at the end of the day, the millions of Afghan voters who defied Taliban threats to cast ballots are now left wondering if their votes counted.” A BBC commentator, David Loyn, decided to publish speculations he’s heard about the electoral outcome: “one source told me the margin of victory could be as close as 3% but other figures being quoted by Afghan officials say it’s more like 10%,” but then concluded that “nothing is certain unless or until Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission publishes the final result,” leaving readers to wonder why he threw the 3% and 10% figures out there (BBC News, Sept 21/14, “Afghan presidential contenders sign unity deal”). Western media have also noted that both Ghani and Abdallah are supportive of an agreement allowing US forces to stay on in Afghanistan. One way of summarizing these comments might be: We don’t really know or care how Afghans voted, but it seems that Western interests in Afghanistan will be protected by the deal the West brokered.
Among all the uncertainties about what happened, about the real and hidden agendas of the players, about whose votes were counted and whose ignored, that is the one constant: Western interests are taken care of. Western interests are why Afghans have been bombed, they are why Afghans have been presented with these candidates, they are why their votes were counted, and they are why their votes were ultimately ignored. Whether the deal holds or it doesn’t – and it probably won’t – Afghanistan is another example of how US invasions don’t bring democracy, even more than a decade later.
Justin Podur is based in Toronto and blogs at podur.org.