Security issues are paramount in the run-up to Thursday’s presidential elections in Afghanistan. A suicide attack today killed seven people – including NATO troops – and earlier a rocket slammed into the presidential compound in Kabul. The Taliban has sworn to attack polling stations and there are fears voters will stay away in droves. Less obviously, there are also Western concerns about the allies President Hamid Karzai is calling on to shore up his campaign.
Some 17 million Afghans have registered to vote in what will be only the second presidential election in the country’s history. But with the Taliban threatening to disrupt Thursday’s vote, there are fears a low turnout will damage the election’s legitimacy. President Hamid Karzai is the frontrunner. But as he fights to win a fresh mandate, both the UN and the US have voiced concern about his choice of allies.
Karzai is heavily reliant on former militia leaders to deliver votes and his international backers are worried that warlords could return to power after the election. One of the most notorious, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, returned to Afghanistan from Turkey on Sunday to throw his support behind the president. Washington believes Dostum may be responsible for human rights violations and is concerned at the possibility he could play a role in a post-election government.
Essential power base
Bette Dam spent many hours interviewing Mr Karzai on a number of occasions in 2008, and she describes these former warlords as essential to the president’s power base. "They’re old friends", she says, "with whom he thinks he has to wheel and deal to keep the country safe. The fact that he’s calling on their support now is a sign of his determination to stay in power".
There is a danger though, that these allies could become millstones if President Karzai wins a second term in office. A lot of Afghan groups, including the Taliban, are fiercely opposed to these warlords, and Karzai’s association with them will make the process of negotiation and reconciliation between the different factions in the country much more difficult.
Part of the conflict
Dam describes Karzai as part of the conflict and is critical of the West for seeing him for too long as a ‘clean’ president. He was part of the conflict from the beginning she says, and he needs the support of the international community when it comes to negotiating with Afghanistan’s many factions.
Western or Afghan?
When he was first elected in 2005, President Karzai had the image of a Westernised Afghan, a reformer. He was, says Dam, "the donors’ darling, a man who could speak the words the West wanted to hea". But she goes on “I talked to him for a long time, and my conclusion was he is much more Afghan than Western…In the evening, Afghan warlords come and visit him and that’s the real talk, THAT is Hamid Karzai, they support him – he is still alive and that’s not only because of the Americans".
It’s not about sex…
Dam refers to a controversial law signed by Karzai last week, which allows a husband to withhold food from his wife if she refuses his sexual demands. ”That law” she says “is typical in that he is making a deal with one Ayatollah. He needs his support so now we have this sex law….this is the deal making, it’s not about the sex it’s about the Ayatollah and that’s the game Karzai is playing ”.
Reconciliation is key
Assuming Hamid Karzai wins a second term,the most important thing will be for the Afghan government and its international supporters to agree on a strategy of how the different parties can be reconciled. “They have to talk, that’s the only solution, we tried for 8 years the military solution and it’s not going to work”, concludes Dam.
Bette Dam's book Expeditie Uruzgan, based on her time in Afghanistan and her interviews with Hamid Karzai, is available in the Dutch language only.