Karzai won't leave

Afghan President Hamid Karzai discovered the importance of adhering to his country's constitution at an awfully convenient political moment.

Published March 2, 2009 6:50PM (EST)

The news that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was considering resignation caused considerable agitation in Western capitals late last week. It was a sudden shift. The Afghan president, once installed by the United States and lauded as a torchbearer, is now identified as the scapegoat for the West's lack of success in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, no one in the West has any idea how things could proceed without him.

The reports of his departure were more than just another product of the Kabul rumor mill. In their classified reports, intelligence agencies noted that something was cooking in Kabul, and yet they were unable to predict exactly what was about to happen there.

The uncertainty was finally laid to rest on Saturday afternoon, when Karzai issued a decree announcing his intention to hold the presidential elections in the spring, by April 21 at the latest. Always the statesman, the president, who lacks even the power necessary to protect Kabul from the Taliban, explained that he is bound to respect the Afghan constitution. Under Article 61, the election must take place at least one month prior to the end of a sitting president's term. Karzai's term ends on May 21.

In his decree, Karzai emphasizes that he wants to remain president. Instead of knuckling under to the West, he is provoking the NATO protective force and the United Nations -- an approach that has always scored points among Afghans. "Even if I fail," so goes an old motto of this proud Pashtun, "I will do so with my head held high."

The United States distanced itself from Karzai's decision to move up the elections. US State Department spokesman Robert Wood, speaking in Washington on Saturday, said that although the decree is based on the right principles, the US government still considers it advisable to stick to the Afghan Election Commission's original plan to hold the election in August.

Karzai is driven by various motives. He has been under great pressure in Afghanistan, where he is criticized for having given in to the West. The election commission, paid for and controlled by the U.N., had ruled that the election should not be held until August. The tense security situation and the need to provide Afghanistan with more time to recover from what has been a harsh winter, the commission argued, would preclude an earlier election -- and breaching the constitution, though unfortunate, would be necessary.

Experts Rule Out Earlier Election

The decision sparked massive resistance in the country, and Karzai was criticized by his opponents and supporters alike. They also made it clear that they would no longer recognize the president after the end of his regular term in office. Weeks ago, the Taliban warned all Afghans that anyone taking part in the vote, whether as a voter or a candidate, would be a legitimate target of attack. According to Western analysts, this threat makes elections virtually unthinkable, especially in the south.

These concerns remain valid today. The 17,000 U.S. troops and several thousand European ISAF soldiers meant to provide security for the vote will not be available until the summer. Besides, the preparations -- voter registration and the compilation of candidate lists -- are not yet complete. The U.N. has not even come up with the $200 million it needs to organize the election. It is still collecting donations.

Not surprisingly, reactions to Karzai's decree were clear. "There will be no election in the spring," said a U.N. insider in Kabul only hours after the announcement of the presidential decree, "even if that's what Karzai suddenly wants."

"The Buck Is Being Passed to the Evil West"

Perhaps Karzai is even hoping for the West's predictable rejection of his plan. And perhaps Karzai reasons that if the West does not manage to organize a spring election, he will be able to claim that at least he tried to obey the constitution. "The buck is being passed to the evil West," says an EU diplomat, "which leaves Karzai looking good." If this happens, an interim regime -- led by Karzai as the "father of the nation" -- could be installed until a later election date. A key advantage of this option is that Karzai could still be ousted in the election.

The election commission, playing for time, has not commented on the decree yet. Commission officials say that they cannot make a decision until they have received the official letter from the presidential palace. ISAF's official response has also been scant. Internally, however, Karzai's announcement has been met with concern.

Karzai confronted the West's concerns in his decree. In its four articles, he appealed to the Afghan security forces -- namely, the military, the police and the NDS intelligence agency -- which are still in the process of being assembled, to do everything possible to ensure a safe election. He also called upon the "enemies of Afghanistan" to take part in the elections. However, many in the West doubt whether local authorities will be capable of providing security.

Karzai's decision is a signal to critics at home and abroad. Under pressure at home for being Washington's puppet, the president is looking for ways to distinguish himself. After fatal mistakes were made during NATO bombing attacks on supposed Taliban camps, Karzai was quick to level sharp criticism at the West. It was so sharp, in fact, that last fall then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued an unmistakable warning: Unless Karzai's criticism stopped, the United States would end its cooperative relationship with him.

"There Are Plenty of Qualified Afghans"

"I will not be silent, and I will not stop promoting the interests of my people and their children," Karzai allegedly fired back -- at least according to the version his palace broadcast. But the criticism did not stop when a new administration came into power in Washington. On the contrary, President Barack Obama has, in fact, identified Afghanistan as a priority more clearly than his predecessor did, no matter who is in office in Kabul.

U.S. statements in recent weeks sounded practically like Karzai's notice of termination. For example, when U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke was asked whether the Obama administration even supports Karzai anymore, he replied: "There are plenty of qualified, impressive Afghans in the country." Obama had been in office for several weeks before he called his new counterpart in Afghan. Bush, on the other hand, had conferred with Karzai every week.

The opposition is already taking shape in Afghanistan. Former Interior Minister Ali Ahmed Jalali is one of Karzai's possible challengers in an election. Karzai had removed the 68-year-old politician from his position after Jalali took legal action against the Karzai family for its alleged involvement in the drug trade. Jalali, who was often in the United States in recent months, has strong connections to the conservative camp and is claiming the role of the clean candidate for himself.

There are rumors that another man is the current favorite in the United States. Ashraf Ghani, like Jalali, holds a U.S. passport. He was an adviser at the World Bank and later served in Karzai's cabinet as finance minister. Even though Ghani himself is suspected of involvement in nepotism, he could become Washington's new man. Minor flaws haven't deterred the Americans in the past. Other possible candidates are the governor of Nangahar Province and Interior Minister Mohammed Atmar.

Secret Pacts With Taliban Leaders?

But all of these candidates will not stand much of a chance if Karzai succeeds in his push for early elections. With Karzai's envisioned election day less than two months away, none of them would have enough time to gain sufficient name recognition in the country, not even with U.S. support. This, too, is likely to have prompted Karzai to issue his decree. Whether or not the elections actually take place in accordance with constitutional rules, Karzai now enjoys an advantage.

Karzai's sudden fondness for the constitution seems implausible, especially after the many times the president has allowed the constitution to be breached when it suited him. One of the best examples regards Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta. Even though the politician, who lived in Germany for many years, was voted out of office by the parliament several times, Karzai kept him in his position. In Spanta's case, the constitution was merely an impediment.

Only a fool would bet on the outcome of this race, but it is already clear that Karzai will not go without a fight. He is believed to have concluded various pacts throughout the winter with high-ranking Taliban officials and tribal leaders in the south to secure him a majority of votes. No matter how big a role U.S. support and U.N. money play, a president still has to be elected, even in Afghanistan.

By Matthias Gebauer

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Afghanistan Taliban