Afghanistan: The leak isn't the story

What is going on in Kabul may be more interesting than what's going on in Kandahar

Reporting from Afghanistan by Canadian media is focused almost entirely on Kandahar. But as the kerfuffle over ambassador William Crosbie and the leak about the contents of the wilileaks memos reminds us, what is going on in Kabul is in many ways more interesting. In particular, it is important to pay attention to what prompted Crosbie’s outburst in the first place.

According to the reports, Crosbie was extremely upset with Karzai’s attempt to rewrite Afghanistan’s election laws to give himself more power, in advance of this year’s parliamentary elections. Crosbie was, apparently, angry not only with Karzai, but also with what he saw as a weak reaction to Karzai’s gambit from the US.

This is of ongoing interest, because Karzai didn’t get his way back in February. The IEC and ECC are independent, and the IEC has, by law, final say over who gets returned to parliament. Despite misleading statements in a lot of news reports, Karzai does not get to “approve” the results of the election. Yet all indications are that he continued to try to manipulate the electoral process right up to the election, and that since then, he has been working to manipulate the results.

Western governments, including Canada, hoped for two things out of the election. First, that the process would be reasonably fair, and that it would not be marred by the scale of corruption that we saw in the presidential election last year. But second, there was hope that the voters would deliver some fresh faces to Kabul, so that the parliament would start to develop the idea of a loyal opposition – opposed to the Karzai regime, but loyal to the Afghan constitution.

The preliminary results appeared to deliver a certain amount of satisfaction on this second score; a healthy number of names on the list were people unlikely to serve as Karzai’s lapdogs. But then the trouble started. As the IEC and ECC went about their work, the allegations of fraud and abuse kept coming and the number of polls that were disallowed kept climbing. Meanwhile, the Attorney General started nosing around and threatening to launch his own investigations, directly challenging the authority and independence of the IEC and ECC.

One problem is that the decision to release preliminary results seems to have backfired. While the idea was to provide some degree of transparency and build trust in the independent bodies, what it ended up doing was angering those who were left off the victor’s list, but giving them time and inclination to discredit the entire process. It also gave Karzai a sense of what to expect. Since then, Karzai – through the Attorney General’s office —  has been working hard to undermine the IEC. Last week, the AG “suspended” the spokesmen for the IEC and ECC on thoroughly trumped up charges of corruption.

But the IEC continued with its work, and with the announcement of the results for Ghazni, IEC chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi says that “the final duty of the IEC regarding the parliamentary elections” has been performed. This is crucial, because it means that the IEC is standing up to the Attorney General’s office and, by extension, to Karzai. But the machinations are continuing, and it is pretty clear that the fight over the results is not over. There are reports that Karzai wants to get the entire election annulled and have it run over again.

This isn’t entirely about Karzai. There are widespread concerns, apparently even in international circles and at the UN, about the ethnic makeup of the new parliament, especially surrounding the underrepresentation of Pashtuns. The worry is that they will feel disenfranchised, and turn to the insurgency.

The election is over and the final results have been announced, but it looks like the fight for the Wolesi Jirga is just getting started. Afghanistan’s democratic institutions are shaky and under attack, and it is going to take a lot of work to maintain their integrity in the face of political pressure from many sides.

If William Crosbie if forced to resign over his outburst, Hamid Karzai might be rid of one opponent, but Afghanistan will have lost a friend.

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