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Losing legitimacy after Afghanistan’s elections

Losing legitimacy after Afghanistan’s elections

Afghan Border Police in Spin Boldak. Photo by Matthieu Aikins.

There has been some very positive news coming out of Kandahar province lately, as the New York Times’ Carlotta Gall has reported. According to ISAF and Afghan government officials, the Taliban have been "routed" from the province by a massive military offensive, partly with the help of a miraculous rocket launcher, the HIMARS system, which, though not exactly "new" as claimed in the Times piece, certainly sounds impressive. The news is all the more remarkable in that it closely follows the timetable that was laid down by military officials throughout the summer.

It’s a pity, then, that this moment of military triumphalism should be marred by the impending election-barring Electoral Complaints Council (ECC) intervention-of an extremely dubious slate of Afghan parliamentary candidates, one that underscores how tenuous the connection is between the people of Kandahar and their government. Sitting atop the list, as the most popular man among Kandahari voters, is Hashmat Khalil Karzai, first cousin to the president, whom International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officers at Kandahar Air Field and the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) would know as a by-now-wealthy purveyor of private security services and armored vehicles, and the rest of the world as the Karzai whom the New York Times accused of killing one of his relatives last year. The tribal dynamic in Kandahar, while not to be overstated, has further been skewed by the election of four Popolzais, with the Alikozai, Noorzai, Achekzai, Barakzai, Kakar, Mohmmadzai and Farsiwan (Persian-speakers) getting one representative each, and no Alizai, Ishaqzai, or Ghilzai at all.

In the new-and-improved, Taliban-free Kandahar, Governor Tooryalai Wesa is now able to drive along the highway 40 km west to Howz-e Madad something that "would have led to catastrophe even three weeks ago," according to General Nick Carter, the ISAF commander in Southern Afghanistan. If only the ISAF offensive had come before the summer’s election campaign season, which instead took place during a period of violence and insecurity unprecedented in the province since 2001. During a stay in the city in July, there were nightly sounds of heavy weaponry audible from the center of the city, and a daily toll of attacks against military and civilians. The highways west and east of city were battle zones.

This made it extremely difficult for candidates who did not have connections with strongmen to mobilize support through campaign events. It was impossible out in the districts, though prominent leftists like Noorul-Haq Ulumi and Shakiba Hashemi did manage to hold small-scale rallies in the city. Malalai Ishaqzai, an incumbent female MP from the Ishaqzai tribe, decided to switch to Kabul province because of the insecurity. She had endorsed Abdullah Abdullah during the 2009 presidential elections and had thus fallen out with the Karzai camp. (She is not one of the leading candidates in Kabul, either.)

The election was notable for who was not running. Aside from Ishaqzai, there were four other candidates who were not seeking reelection. Habibulah Jan, the Alizai commander from Senzaray, Zhari, who had been crucial to government control of the district, was killed by gunmen in 2008. Qayum Karzai, the president’s older brother, resigned his position in Afghanistan’s parliament in 2008 and has now apparently gone into a sort of semi-retirement running his restaurants in Baltimore, where he has been making acerbic remarks about his family’s performance in Afghanistan. Ahmad Shah Khan, an elderly Achekzai leader and elder from the border town of Spin Boldak, decided to retire from politics as well. His son ran in his stead, but was not one of the leading candidates in the announced results.

And Aref Noorzai, the most prominent Kandahari Noorzai figure in the government, has stepped into the background, possibly to work on his ‘Office for the Protection of Public Properties,’ which was supposed to be tying together militia groups across the country, but has now been largely sidelined. He had ceded the parliamentary mantle to his brother Mohammad Eshaq, who is not one of the leading candidates of the posted results. Instead, Aref’s cousin, Haji Mohammad Omar Nangyalai, who owns a contracting company, is listed in fourth place.

Turnout this year was lower than in 2005-85,385 versus 178,269 — though a number of observers who witnessed turnouts in both elections said that this year’s turnout was a great deal lower than those numbers would suggest. Of course vote counts are not an entirely reliable indicator, due to fraud, and have become even less so now, but the top candidate in 2005, Qayum Karzai, had garnered 14,243 votes, compared with 5,814 this year for Hashmat Karzai. The former Communist general Noorul-Haq Ulumi, a prominent leftist from the Barakzai elite and the leader of the Muttahed-e Melli Party, came in second place with 13,035 votes in 2005 — and apparently failed to get even 3,000 this time.

Observers were anticipating extreme fraud in Kandahar, where what little security exists is dependent on strongmen. The most notable of these is the young Border Police colonel Abdul Raziq, who commands a large, mostly Achekzai militia based out of the key border town of Spin Boldak. In the 2009 presidential elections, Raziq proved that he could deliver vote counts through his commander network that extends through the districts of Maruf, Arghestan, Spin Boldak, Reg, Shorawak, and Daman. This year, he seems to have been elevated, in some respects, to a role in the elections equal to Ahmed Wali Karzai’s.

Amir Lalai, an incumbent who came in sixth, is a Popolzai jihadi commander with a strong presence in Shah Wali Kot, who reportedly patched things up with the Karzais after falling out during the presidential elections in 2009. Toran Abdul Khaliq Bala Karzai, the number two candidate, is a popular jihadi commander and minor political figure from Bala Karz, in Dand District, with close ties to Ahmed Wali. Fariba Kakar and Abdul Rahim Ayubi can also be considered ‘Karzai-friendly’ candidates.

However, Ahmed Wali Karzai and Raziq’s influence on the list of leading candidates has so far been less than might have been anticipated. Mohammed Ayub "Pahlawan," a Spin Boldak Achekzai supported by Raziq, has not made that list. And the election, with high vote counts, of Hashmat Karzai and Hamidzai Lalai, two marginal players who are outside of the Ahmed Wali/Raziq nexus, is quite interesting and suggests that some sort of free market — for those with the cash and armed muscle — still exists in Kandahari politics.

Hashmat, according to numerous sources, has been on the outs with Ahmed Wali Karzai and the Karzai family in general, who have been exasperated by his behavior. He received little support from the president when the New York Times accused him of killing his relative, and he was one of four candidates singled out on Kandahar’s local television channel, Hewad, prior to the election as being a person not worthy of the nation’s votes.

Mohammad Naeem Hamidzai Lalai, who is from the Hamidzai branch of the Achekzai, placed third in the list. His campaign posters showed him in the embrace of former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai. Around 35 years old, he is a rough character who spent time in prison during the Taliban regime, and unlike Hashmat Karzai, he is not particularly wealthy. Until 2008, he had been a member of the Border Police with Abdul Raziq but the two fell out quite badly. In September 2008, Lalai was wounded in an assassination attempt that he publicly blamed on Raziq. During this campaign season, a motorcycle bomb exploded as Lalai was leaving his house, missing him but killing a passing women and child.

A second Sherzai-linked leading candidate is Mullah Syed Mohammed Akhund, brother of Gulalai who is a major contractor at Kandahar Airport and who works closely with Sherzai’s brother, Raziq Sherzai. An interesting question is why Sherzai’s patronage seems to have benefitted Hamidzai Lalai, but not Khalid Pashtun, who had been Sherzai’s campaign manager during his abortive run for presidency in 2009. Pashtun, who got 10,462 votes in 2005, and was campaigning within the relatively secure Barakzai stronghold of Dand District, somehow failed to make the list.

Most obvious is the influence of the money that ISAF has poured into Kandahar in an effort to stabilize the province. Four of the eight non-incumbent leading candidates are owners (or brothers of owners) of large construction, logistics, or private security companies that have thrived off the international military presence.

What all this reveals about Kandahar’s byzantine political networks is still somewhat unclear. But the election in general was clearly fraudulent, even by what are euphemistically known as ‘Afghan standards.’ "It was better not to have election at all in Kandahar rather than the one that happened, it was a comedy of democracy," said one Kandahar-based independent national observer.

Video evidence of fraud and more than a hundred ‘Priority A’ complaints have been received by the ECC, and ten candidates accused of fraud have been introduced to the investigative authorities. While the ballots of hundreds of polling stations across the province have been invalidated, there are still a large number of stations showing signs of probable ballot stuffing.

The ECC will be making decisions on complaints over the coming weeks. For now, candidates are gearing up for a fight. "My IT staff and I have started downloading the results sheets released on IEC web site to file our complaints," said one losing candidate. "There are candidates who got 400 to 500 votes per stations; even the Independent Electoral Council (IEC) staff reported that fraud happened in those stations. It means that the IEC (at the centre) did not respond to these staff reports and to the evidence provided." Another Kandahar resident commented: "If the real and honest representatives of people will not be elected because of the behavior of the ‘fraud-lords,’ people will criticize it, demonstrations will take place and the big tribes will boycott the government."

As ISAF celebrates its tactical military success, it clear that the root causes of the conflict in Kandahar are being reinforced by an election that has further delegitimized the government.

For now, here are the winning candidates and their backgrounds:

1. Hashmat Khalil Karzai (5,814 votes): Popolzai and first cousin to the president; owner of Asia Security Group, a notorious private security company.

2. Toran Saheb Abdul Khaliq Bala Karzai (5,491 votes): Popolzai, former Mujahid Commander, Karzai loyalist.

3. Mohammad Naeem Lalai Hamidzai (5,321 votes): Achekzai from Hamidzai branch; supported by Gul Agha Sherzai, enmity with Abdul Raziq.

4. Haji Mohammad Omar Nangyalai (4,942 votes): Noorzai and cousin to Aref Noorzai; wealthy, owns a construction company.

5. Abdul Rahim Ayubi (4,485 votes): Popolzai originally from Arghestan, but has been living in the city for years; owns a contracting company.

6. Haji Amir Lalai (4,038 votes): Incumbent, Popolzai, former jihadi commander who controlled large swathes of Shah Wali Kot during the jihad era in civil war; his election in 2005 was supported by the Karzais; they fell out during the 2009 president elections, but have reportedly reconciled.

7. Mullah Syed Mohammad Akhund (3,476 votes): Barakzai from Dand, brother of major KAF contractor Gulalai.

8. Dr. Mahmud Khan (3,339 votes): Alikozai.

9. Fariba Ahmadi Kakar (1,182 votes): Incumbent, female, Farsiwan but married into a Kakar family, considered a Karzai loyalist.

10. Bibi Hamida (910 votes): Female, Mohammadzai.

11. Shakiba Hashemi (641 votes): Incumbent, female, Farsiwan; leftist member of Muttahed-e Melli party; outspoken against Ahmed Wali Karzai, claims to have been threatened by him.

Matthieu Aikins is a magazine writer who reports on Afghanistan for Harper’s Magazine, the Walrus, Popular Science, and others. Gran Hewad is a researcher with the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), where a version of this post originally appeared.