An Afghan farce, produced in the West

For Hamid Karzai to justify the West’s unjustified war, the Afghan presidential elections had to be rigged.

Tara McCormack

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Afghanistan is to go to the polls once again after what was undoubtedly a seriously flawed election. Massive vote-rigging was committed in order to boost the votes for the current president, Hamid Karzai. It seems that up to a third of votes allegedly cast for Karzai were fraudulent.

In the West, the storm has been a long time brewing. A month ago, US diplomat Peter Galbraith resigned from the UN over what he argued was the UN’s initial failure to highlight the fraudulent nature of the election. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has since warned Karzai that he needs to construct a new relationship between himself and the Afghan people as soon as possible. On Monday, the US warned Karzai that he needed to legitimise the whole process. Unsurprisingly, after initial protests, Karzai finally acquiesced to new elections. Yet this has not stopped the Western handwringing, with questions still being asked in America and Britain about why troops are being sent over to defend a clearly fraudulent election and regime.

However, Western discussion both in the media and amongst political elites, is fundamentally dishonest. Karzai is playing the part of the fall guy for a disastrous conflict which the West went into with no clear aim or overall political strategy, a war in which it is firmly embroiled with no way of extracting itself. Justification for the war has shifted constantly, beginning with a bizarrely ill-thought-out assault in order, purportedly, to get rid of the Taliban and capture Osama Bin Laden. It then mutated into grand promises to nation-build and bring democracy and women’s rights, before being justified in terms of protecting our security and that of Afghan civilians, although from whom or what is rarely specified. The latest ruse seems to be that this may now be achieved through making deals with the local Taliban and assorted warlords.

The problem is that despite their initial grand claims, the Western powers simply do not have the political will to create a stable, democratic state in Afghanistan (whatever one might think politically or morally about the desirability of externally imposed nation-building). Nation-building in Afghanistan would entail a radical social transformation of one of the most impoverished nations on earth, and require far more political vision and strength than current American or British governments can muster at home, let alone export abroad.

Possessing neither the will nor the clout to make Afghanistan in its image, the West has opted for cheap theatrical tricks instead. The so-called democratic Afghan elections have been staged and run entirely for the benefit of Western domestic constituencies. American and British governments can at least say to their voters that all the money and casualties have been in a noble cause: bringing democracy to Afghanistan. Moreover, the elections also have the advantage of shifting the blame, of making the disaster of the war and occupation into the fault of the Afghans themselves. The focus is now on the flawed election and the failures of Karzai rather than on the overall process of invasion and occupation that led to this fiasco.

The truth is that the Afghan elections have been an entirely Western stage-managed affair from beginning to end. Karzai himself was picked by America and it is the West that has insisted on elections. Yet Karzai is a man who has no political constituency in Afghan society apart from that which he can establish through corruption and patronage. The power of the Afghan government is a polite fiction maintained for the benefit of Western viewers, with the writ of the government hardly extending outside Kabul. Moreover, the reality of Afghan society is such that a liberal democratic election is fairly meaningless. In many areas of the country women cannot leave their houses and vast numbers of people vote according to what local tribal chiefs tell them (quite rationally, of course, considering that Afghan society is still organised along communal tribal lines).

How else could Karzai have ‘delivered’ the right election results other than through fraud? The only surprise is that only a third of the votes cast for Karzai were fraudulent. Having set up this farcical situation, the West now castigates Karzai and heaps scorn upon him, warning that until he turns that benighted country into Switzerland, he will not receive any aid. Well, that might be bad for Karzai and his capacity to dispense patronage, but it will really make little difference to the Afghan people as a whole. As a recent article in the New York Times revealed, beyond Kabul the situation is so dangerous that most aid workers simply cannot leave the city and virtually no aid reaches the Afghan people anyway (1) .

Unfortunately, like everything else about the war, this election was not thought through properly and has ended up being an own goal for the West. The fraudulent elections have simply served to expose the lack of purpose of the war.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) She is also speaking in the debate Is there a global power shift from West to East? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 31 October 2009.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that the West had defeated itself in Afghanistan. He also looked at what’s behind the sudden outburst of questions around Afghanistan. Frank Furedi discussed the dangers of a risk-averse war. Brendan O’Neill stated that answers as to why British troops are in Afghanistan can be found at home rather than over there. David Chandler blamed the invading powers of the West for the weakening of the Afghan state. He also talked about the theatrical nature of war. Or read more at spiked issue Afghanistan.

(1) Civilian Goals Largely Unmet in Afghanistan, New York Times, 12 October 2009

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