Week in Review, 9/12-9/18

The wrangling continues over the outcome of the Afghan presidential election and what steps, if any, can be taken to salvage the government’s legitimacy. The completed count of the first round of voting left Hamid Karzai with 54.6% of the vote and Abdullah Abdullah with 27.8% of the vote; remember, this count isn’t “final” until the Electoral Complaints Commission finishes its work. So far, the ECC has ordered a recount at about 10% of all precincts–about 2,500–at which some 850,000 ballots were cast, a disproportionate number for Karzai. This would be a massive undertaking that would likely push a runoff election into next year, since winter weather would make voting completely unfeasible from about mid-October through April.

So can the process be sped up? Daoud Ali Najafi, head of the Independent Electoral Commission, suggests that the ECC base its recount on random samples rather than counting all 850,000 ballots. But a limited recount almost certainly wouldn’t satisfy Abdullah’s team, which had argued that a much larger number–20-25%–of the ballots were fraudulent, unless of course the limited recount left Karzai with less than 50%. It’d be easy to write of Abdullah’s views as self-interested, but several independent observers have also suggested that the IEC and the ECC are only scratching the surface of the fraud problem. The EU observer team, for example, calculates that 1.5 million votes are “suspicious“, 1.1 million of which were cast for Karzai. If all of those votes were excluded, Karzai’s share would fall to about 47%, forcing a runoff.

In fact, the UN mission isn’t even unanimous on how to deal with the elections, as became evident this week when Peter Galbraith–the top American diplomat at UNAMA–left the mission temporarily over a dispute with his superior Kai Eide. Eide was out of the country when the vote-rigging allegations came to light, and Galbraith was apparently behind the IEC’s decision to hold off an announcing the results of large numbers of ballots from Karzai-backing provinces. Now Eide is clamping down on talk of massive fraud and trying to forestall a complete recount, which Galbraith supports. Galbraith’s position seems consistent with the U.S.’ other actions, especially if this report from The Times of London is accurate when it claims that Richard Holbrooke’s staff were proactive in leaking fraud reports in an attempt to discredit Karzai’s victory.

This kind of public scrap is the last thing UNAMA or the ISAF nations need right now. Karzai’s current position is to acknowledge that the election was imperfect but insist that Western observers are being irresponsible to cast doubt on the results or suggest a runoff; as Aunohita Mojumdar of EurasiaNet notes, Western disunity strengthens Karzai’s hand and threatens to make “anti-foreigner rhetoric” the cornerstone of his government’s credibility. For example, check out this headline from Kabul’s Noorin TV: “Analysts say the verbal tussles between UN SRSG Kai Eide and his deputy Peter Galbraith show that western diplomats are working on the basis of their own country’s interests.” That’s certainly the image Karzai wants to project.

The obvious way out of this quandary would be a coalition government of some kind. David Miliband floated that idea last week, and speculation has increased as the recount situation has deteriorated; Declan Walsh of The Observer and Matthew Green of the Financial Times, among others, reported that Karzai was coming under increasing pressure to cut a deal–though it’s not clear who is pressuring him, or what kind of deal would be cut. The IEC was quick to shoot down Miliband’s suggestion, though, and Spencer Ackerman cites an American diplomat claiming that Abdullah wouldn’t want a position in a Karzai administration anyway. Ajmal Samadi of Afghanistan Rights Monitor proposes another alternative: a new “transitional authority” to run the country until the election process is finished. Josh Foust endorses the idea, and adds that he hopes that a transitional authority could be a step toward a new constitution with a parliamentary (as opposed to a presidential) system, which might be a way to prevent future dilemmas like the one Afghanistan faces now.

As though taking divergent lines on the election weren’t bad enough, the ISAF nations aren’t exactly showing strength of resolve on the military side of things this week, either. At least two of the U.S.’ allies are demonstrating increasing discomfort with their role in Afghanistan. Yukio Hatoyama, the newly-elected prime minister from the Democratic Party of Japan, announced the appointment of Toshimi Kitazawa as Defense Minister; Kitazawa was an Iraq war opponent, and his appointment “suggests that [Hatoyama] will follow through in his election promise to withdraw from the Nato-led Afghanistan campaign”, according to the Times of London. The DPJ is more like an opposition alliance than an ideologically coherent party, but everyone associated the formerly-ruling Liberal Democratic Party with a close relationship with the United States, so the DPJ represents the opposite, at least in the minds of some voters. Japan has no troops in Afghanistan, but provides refueling support to the U.S. in the Indian Ocean.

Italy, however, DOES have some 3,100 troops in Afghanistan, and is apparently reconsidering that role after a suicide car bombing in Kabul that killed six of its soldiers as well as ten civilians. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s response was quick and unambiguous: ““We are all convinced that it would be best for everyone, whoever they are, to remove our conspicuous presence from Afghanistan quickly.” Berlusconi’s coalition is less unified in its support for the war than Chancellor Merkel’s in Germany; it’s safe to say that every Italian death in Afghanistan makes their presence there a bigger liability for Berlusconi, who has plenty of other domestic political problems.

So, in summary, the political dynamics of the West are interacting with the political dynamics of Afghanistan to put both in a bad spot. I’ll have more to say about how commentators and (more importantly) the Obama administration think we should manage the situation, but I wanted to highlight an important story that flew under the media radar this week: the announcement of new procedures for the detainees at Bagram Air Force Base. The announcement is a kind of preemptive step as the government prepares to appeal federal judge John Bates’ ruling that prisoners captured elsewhere and transferred to Bagram are entitled to habeas corpus. Detainees will now be provided with a representative–though not an attorney–who will have access to the evidence against the detainee, which the detainee still won’t be allowed to see. From a Washington Post editorial: “A three-officer military panel will review a detention decision within 60 days after the prisoner arrives, and new panels will reassess the detention every six months thereafter if the detainee continues to be held.” As David Remes of Appeal for Justice observes, this system sounds a lot like the Combatant Status Review Tribunals of Guantanamo–ruled insufficient in Boumediene v. Bush–and likely means a protracted legal battle. And, as that Post piece I linked above notes, the new guidelines don’t make any provision for the 30-odd prisoners at Bagram who weren’t captured on the battlefield, but were flown in from abroad.

While the news on the national and international levels is grim, it’s worth remembering that the situation in the provinces isn’t getting much better, and three great pieces from the past week emphasize that fact. First, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Post writes about the resurgent Taliban in Kandahar and the redoubled NATO efforts to secure the city, including intensive operations by Marines in Arghandab and an increased Canadian presence. Apparently, the Canadians have had some success with development projects in nearby Dand, which encouraged the local Barakazai elders to take a strong line against the Taliban. Unfortunately, this kind of operation on the city fringe is all our current troop levels will support, according to the NATO official quoted in the piece. Second, Josh Foust chronicles Ghazni province’s slow descent into Taliban control; the disappearance of a popular anti-American cleric there prompted a round of rioting in Ghazni city last week. Third, IWPR reports on a spate of abductions of business-owners and traders in Balkh province, where tensions between governor Atta Mohammed Noor and the central government have made law enforcement all but impossible.

Finally, since I regret that this blog has focused so heavily on the military-political side of things, I’d like to direct everyone to the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team’s brand new blog, which is a great source for updates (with pictures!) on province-level development in Afghanistan.


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