Will U.S. Back Bogus Afghan Elections?

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 5:16 PM EDT

The fact that tomorrow's presidential election in Afghanistan will be mired in corruption, fraud, and backroom dealing is all but certain, writes The Nation's Ann Jones, author of Kabul In Winter and an incisive voice on all things Afghan. The more pressing question, she says, is this: Will the U.S., in the name of demonstrating Afghanistan's "progress" toward democracy, validate the election and deem it "credible"?

If it does (and it very likely might), tomorrow will be a sad day for democracy. According to Jones, here are just a few of the reaosns why progress will be the last thing this election represents: 

Stacking the Deck: All the members of the so-called Independent Election Commission were appointed by President Karzai, and they've never disguised their allegiance to him. So the initial vetting process for candidates eliminated some promising challengers and spared old cronies, including the war criminals the process was meant to screen out.

Backroom Deals: One after another, potential and declared candidates have bowed out to back Karzai. Word leaks out about which ministries they've been promised. Karzai buys the support of local leaders running for provincial offices, using (illegally) all the perks of office, from airplanes to free airtime on national TV, to help his friends and himself. One of his deals brought him Hazara support in exchange for the notorious Shia Personal Status Law, enforcing a wife's sexual servitude in violation of the Afghan Constitution.

Voter Fraud: In May in Ghazni, $200 would buy 200 blank registration cards, but lots of people, including minors, already had plenty. Men were able to get a bunch by handing in a list of women for whom they will vote by proxy. Since no central registry exists, verification is impossible. A recent report places the number of voter registration cards distributed (not including fakes) at 17 million, almost twice the estimated number of eligible voters in the country.

Juan Cole points out that 33 polling stations in Ghazni province won't be open tomorrow because of poor security, and that the Taliban are confiscating voting cards house by house. And, of course, there are those letters and warnings from the Taliban. The ones that say they'll attack and even kill anyone who votes.

Election gaming might even extend to the Americans. Reports have emerged in the run-up to the election that the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, might be brokering a backroom deal to install Ashraf Ghani, the more Westernized presidential candidate who's currently running in third, as an executive in the Karzai administration if Ghani agrees to drop out and back Karzai in the election. Time has likely run out for that deal, however.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

As The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman reports, one way to legitimize the Afghan elections could be to forge a unity government, bringing members of the losing candidates' blocs into the new leadership structure.  And a South Asia scholar at the Atlantic Council, Shuja Nawaz, said that no matter the election's outcome, the winning government will "seek some kind of ex post facto legitimacy by working out deals" among the losers.

Either way, the election is almost surely going to be a mess. Probably not a post-Iran-election maelstrom, but ugly nonetheless. And as many have pointed out, no matter who wins, the U.S. is left in a precarious position once the new government is in place. McClatchy reports that a Karzai win "could drive more to the Taliban or other militant groups, and stoke ethnic tensions." So much for progress and "democracy."