8 October 2004
U.S. taking no chances with Afghan Presidential polls
By Siddharth Varadarajan
NEW DELHI, OCT. 7. When the people of Afghanistan go to the polls on October 9 to choose a President from a field of 15 men and one woman, another Presidential candidate in another country half a world away will be hoping the results allow him to declare victory in at least one front of his `Global War on Terror'.
Though the United States has pulled out all the stops in backing the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, for the top job — including trying to get rival candidates to back down — the Bush camp is evidently taking no chances. In a `coincidental' act of scheduling, the U.N.-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Board has decided to delay till after the U.S. Presidential election is over on November 2, the announcement of results in the event that no candidate wins at least 50 per cent of the vote. If there is a clear winner in the first round, the result will be announced on October 30. If not, the results will only be disclosed on November 6 with the run-off between the top two candidates set for November 20.
Apart from Mr. Karzai, the other well-known candidates are Younus Qanooni, an ethnic Tajik and leader of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek leader who is strong in the provinces of Jowzjan and Balkh, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, leader of the mainly Hazara Hizb-i-Wahdat from the central Bamiyan region. Last month, Mr. Mohaqiq accused the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, of indirectly putting pressure on him to withdraw.
"We cannot be sure Karzai will pick up 50 per cent," a senior Indian official told The Hindu Thursday, "but there's no doubt he'll win in the second round."
Publicly, India has been careful not to take sides, in part because of its old ties with the Northern Alliance and also because of misgivings about the U.S.-driven "all or nothing" centralised state structure. "Of course we support Karzai", said an official. "There is no Pashtun leader stronger than him and having a Pashtun at the centre of the power structure is necessary for the stability of Afghanistan. But we have been advising him to get the Northern Alliance, the non-Pashtuns, into a coalition-type structure." When the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, met the Afghan President in New York last month, the same message was repeated. "Karzai said he had no problem but that it was the other side (i.e. the Tajiks) which was not listening", the official said. He added that the feedback India had received from Kabul was that Mr. Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, was aggravating divisions between Mr. Karzai and the Northern Alliance leaders. Mr. Karzai is expected to win the largest number of Pashtun votes and is hoping his Tajik Vice-Presidential running mate, Ahmed Zia, who happens to be a brother of the late Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, will pull in Tajik votes. Even so, hitting 50 per cent in the first round might be difficult. There is also the problem of violence, with the Taliban and the militia of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar opposing the elections.
In the past, say Indian officials, the centre in Afghanistan stabilised the country through equations with regional commanders and power brokers. "But this time, a centralised system is being imposed by the Americans and the regional and ethnic commanders fear a victorious Karzai will clip their wings forever". Whether he wins by a large or small margin, therefore, New Delhi believes the prospects for peace and stability are "dicey". Nevertheless, India remains fully committed to the rehabilitation of Afghanistan. "We have relief or construction projects in 27 out of 29 provinces and have committed $400 million till 2008," said the official. "Our engagement will continue," he added.
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