Hamid Karzai and the Hopeless 22

Afghanistan’s interim leader is unpopular and ineffectual. Chances are he’ll easily win the October elections.

Karzai: Winner by default?

On Oct. 9, 2004, 22 Afghans will fail miserably in their attempt to unseat U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan’s first presidential elections. The Bush administration seems to think Karzai is the only man who can lead Afghanistan. It’s true that the charismatic Pashtun cuts a seductive figure with his charming English and impeccable sense of style, but with those credentials, Karzai seems more qualified to host a Queer Eye With Hamid Karzai series than to lead a fractured, unstable country.

Believe it or not, most of Karzai’s opponents—many of whom I spoke to in Kabul at the end of July—have distinguished records of service as political, religious, or resistance leaders. The list even includes a few choice personalities—a prominent woman doctor, a poet, and a whiskey-drinking warlord. They represent the range of Afghanistan’s clans, ethnic groups, and regional divisions. On Tuesday, a coalition of former Northern Alliance leaders who are unhappy with Karzai will announce a coalition supporting Education Minister Yunus Qanooni.

But the way the election rules work, Afghans have little hope of hearing about any contender besides Karzai. The list of candidates wasn’t finalized until July 26, and the campaign doesn’t legally begin until Sept. 7, barely a month before the election. While short campaigns are not uncommon in many developed democracies, a 30-day campaign without public funding will prevent candidates from reaching a population of mostly illiterate people with little access to broadcast media (especially if they’re women).

This means that the incumbent Karzai—who appointed the election management board that made these rules and whose cult-of-personality posters dot much of the dusty Afghan landscape—has more than a slight advantage over his opposition. And that’s without mentioning that he has the uncritical support of the most powerful country in the world.

Few people I talked to in Afghanistan—save several warlords and the poppy-growers—were particularly happy with the interim head of a country that some Anglophone Afghans have taken to calling “Trashcanistan.” One resident of Jalalabad summed up the feelings of many when he said: “Tell me about someone beside Karzai, and I will vote for them. But who is there?” With only a month to campaign, no money, and a media still in its fetal stage, it seems unlikely Afghans will go to the polls knowing much about any of Karzai’s rivals.

I asked several of the candidates why they were even bothering to run. For some—like the Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum—it’s about power and ego. For others, like Dr. Massouda Jalal and certain ethnic leaders, it’s about recognition for their constituencies. But for all the candidates, running for president is the ultimate expression of what it means to live in a democracy. And for those who are most sincere about the ideals an election represents, the concocted nature of the campaign is frustrating and troubling. “In some countries,” candidate Sayeed Ishaq Gailani told me, “high-level people are saying Karzai is the only one [who can lead] Afghanistan, and this is a big shame for the people of Afghanistan.”

These “high-level people”—mainly those in the Bush administration—may have secured Karzai’s presidency, but the Karzai-Bush partnership has yet to bring security outside Kabul. In an unusually frank assessment, Karzai himself gave his administration a “D” grade in a New York Times interview last month. But considering Karzai’s failure to reign in the warlords, poppy-growers, and Taliban remnants, his opponents might accuse him of grade inflation.

“Karzai is a mindless leader—he does whatever the foreigners tell him,” the outspoken candidate and poet Latif Pedram told me through an interpreter. “He’s never taken a single step toward fighting the warlords and terrorists.”

But Karzai can’t be the only one to blame for this. He’s repeatedly asked for more troops of any kind—U.S., NATO, those Moroccan monkeys that Michael Moore talks about in Fahrenheit 9/11—it doesn’t matter; he just needs troops. But NATO forces have never reached their promised levels, and those that are “in-country” are more or less restricted to Kabul.

As the election nears, Afghan experts no longer wonder if the voting process will be undermined by warlords and insurgents; they wonder where, how, and to what extent the disruption will occur. A month ago, Karzai decided to postpone parliamentary elections until the spring because of security fears. “But if it wasn’t safe to have the parliamentary elections, why is it safe to hold presidential elections?” asked Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, former head of the emergency loya jirga and Gailani’s running mate. Qasimyar’s question was rhetorical—Karzai chose to go forward with the presidential voting at least partly out of obligation to the Bush administration, which is counting on an Afghan election before November.

All the Afghans I talked to are thirsting for the chance to vote, and judging by the numbers that have registered, most Afghans share that sentiment. (The United Nations claims registration has reached 90 percent.) But rather than an election, many feel they’re witnessing a coronation engineered not for the good of Afghanistan but for the political benefit of the Bush administration. One Afghan journalist told me he was thinking of writing John Kerry’s name on the ballot. (“I have his campaign button in my office, and I pray toward it five times a day,” he said.)

But the Afghan people have another way to make their ambivalence known to the international community. If none of the 23 candidates wins at least 50 percent of the vote, election rules call for a runoff. (It would most likely be between Qanooni and Karzai.) Ramadan and the winter snows could delay the runoff until spring. And though that might not be the best possible outcome for the country’s stability, perhaps an extra six months would be enough time to send in more troops, run a prolonged campaign, and ensure that Afghanistan’s first presidential election is truly democratic.