Page 2 of 2

Why America Can't Afford a Karzai Win

Interview: Afghanistan scholar Thomas Barfield on warlord reunions, Abdullah's GQ style, and why Team Obama is rooting for a runoff.

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

MJ: So Abdullah might actually get some buy-in from moderate militant factions?

TB: Well, some of them. The Taliban and the militants got themselves caught up in a real problem by saying, "You shouldn't vote; don't participate in the elections." They hurt Karzai. If I was running an insurgency, I would be running the get-out-the-vote campaign in Kandahar and Helmand, saying, "I want you guys at the polls. Everyone who doesn't have his finger in ink we're going to find." Because in fact, Karzai is one of the best gifts the insurgency could ask for. If you get a major change in government, it's a real crapshoot as to whether they can exploit that or whether it will make things more difficult—people could say, "Well, we're not dealing with the corrupt governors that Karzai appointed, his drug-dealing friends." If I was the Taliban, I think I would rather launch an insurgency against Karzai than probably anybody else.

MJ: And Abdullah has a reputation for being an upstanding guy?

TB: When they were giving out free pieces of property—Karzai gave out free pieces of property to members of his Cabinet to build houses and make a fortune on—Abdullah refused. I've been to his house; it's a modest house inherited from his father. You go to [warlord Abdul Rashid] Dostum's house, and he must have hired a Las Vegas designer; that's what the houses look like. Abdullah has a reputation for probity.

MJ: The author Khaled Hosseini told me these guys are like Tony Soprano, cruising around Kabul in their…

TB: Yeah, their black SUVs with no license plates and tinted windows. But Abdullah has a sterling reputation for fighting against the Taliban. The Pashtuns and Pakistanis in particular hate him for being associated with Massoud, but other people say, "Look, you have really deep roots in terms of your commitment to the country. This isn't like parachuting in with the Americans after 2001. You've been at this for a really long time."

MJ: So how much of the low election turnout would you attribute to the Taliban threats?

TB: In the south, some of it's due to the threats. Elsewhere, I think it's the belief that people feel that the Americans were going to choose it. They were really enthusiastic five years ago when they did this; those people were really, really interested, they were really up for it. Now they don't really feel they can change stuff. In Afghanistan, power has never changed hands via the electoral process, so the idea that you could go to vote and Karzai could be gone is really mind-boggling. If it actually happens, the Afghans will be aghast, like, "Really? Nobody got shot, it wasn't a coup or anything?" Because no Afghan ruler has left office peacefully or died in office peacefully since 1901. That's a long time.

MJ: Which leads you to wonder whether there's real fraud going on.

TB: Well, there will be real fraud. The thing is, Karzai might be so unpopular that fraud may not be enough. The US will be caught in a real dilemma if Karzai claims 51 percent. Then the shit will hit the fan. If there's no runoff and it's really, really close, then fraud plays a really big role. On the other hand, if it goes to a second round, it really doesn't matter whether there was fraud in the first round or not.

MJ: So you would be very surprised if he pulls the 51?

TB: If he does, then the American government will be in a very difficult position because they will have to assert that this is a legitimate vote. To claim 51 percent would be tough, whereas if you have a runoff, and Karzai wins that, he would have a slightly stronger claim to power. From the US point of view, you wouldn't want either Abdullah or Karzai to come into office on this vote with 51 percent. It would be better to have a runoff so people can focus on a one-on-one, not forty candidates running against Karzai. That was one of Karzai's strategies, to make the bar so low that he would be the only one easily recognized out of a huge number of nonentities. But if it goes to one-on-one, Abdullah can say, "Look, it's me or Karzai, and if I'm coming in, this is what I can offer you." In Afghanistan, the perception of being a winner or loser often turns into a reality; if people think Karzai's going to lose, then who wants to be the last one in his tent?

MJ: Afghans are voting for Karzai only because they think he'll win?

TB: Because they think the Americans want him to win. From the American point of view, it's, "No, we don't necessarily want to see him win." There's a cultural disconnect. At the beginning of the Obama administration, it seemed to be quite clear that they were looking for alternatives to Karzai. But when it came right up to it, they pulled back and didn't suggest, "Well, this is our candidate" or put together an opposition, and didn't really come down heavy saying, "Well, why is Karzai bringing back Dostum from Turkey, cutting all these deals with guys we thought were Afghan history?" You know, they were quiet. And so the Afghans take that quiet as, "They must approve because they're powerful." Remember that when the Russians and the British wanted to get rid of the people they put in power, they just did it. And that's the way the Afghans look at it.

MJ: But they recognize that we're different than the Russians.

TB: Well, they do, but this is weird. It's hard for me to explain. If we don't like Karzai, we don't have to come out and publicly endorse somebody, but we can make it mighty clear that we welcome alternatives. We could have stressed weeks ago that we look forward to a second round; the Afghans would know what that means. We didn't. In fact, we said nothing—the US government assumed it would not go to a second round.

MJ: Can you even have an election in a place like Afghanistan that's not going to be tarnished by fraud accusations or outright fraud?

TB: No, but you can't in Chicago either. Doesn't mean you can't have a democracy. It's a question of, is the fraud large enough to challenge people's sense of the outcome? If Karzai gets 45 percent and 10 percent of the votes were fraudulent, it doesn't matter. It actually makes the corruption problem less acute if you have a runoff. And in a place like Afghanistan, it's much more difficult to steal on a wholesale scale. We've talked about corruption—8,000 identity cards here, a guy saying, "I can deliver 700 of my people." That's different from being able to deliver 2 or 3 million votes. Can you move 5 percent, 7 percent of the votes? Maybe. Can you move 20 percent? Probably not.

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

Page 2 of 2