The South Asia Channel

President Karzai Is the One to Blame

Current Afghan President Hamid Karzai is the architect behind the fraudulent 2014 presidential election and the volatile situation that is bringing Afghanistan to the edge of civil war. Yet, the Obama administration continues to allow him to preside over what has become a blatantly flawed election. More specifically, it is irresponsibly failing to address the ...


Current Afghan President Hamid Karzai is the architect behind the fraudulent 2014 presidential election and the volatile situation that is bringing Afghanistan to the edge of civil war. Yet, the Obama administration continues to allow him to preside over what has become a blatantly flawed election. More specifically, it is irresponsibly failing to address the fraud issues properly. Instead of criticizing former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah for boycotting a criminal enterprise that has rigged the election beyond repair, the United States should focus its discontent on Karzai and hold him and his network accountable. This is especially important since the crisis in Afghanistan today has more to do with Karzai’s behavior over the past five years and the West’s unwillingness to hold him accountable than Abdullah’s choice concerning the Independent Election Commission’s (IEC’s) ballot counting.

From the start, the Obama-Karzai relationship has been rocky. During his run for the U.S. presidency, then-Sen. Obama considered the U.S. mission in Afghanistan a priority. As president, he committed additional forces and an enormous financial aid package to the country to salvage the flailing endeavor. Although the relationship between the two leaders would deteriorate steadily over the next five next years, Karzai always seemed to be a step ahead of his U.S. counterpart. Unfortunately, instead of holding Karzai to account for these foolish games, Obama’s actions may end up inadvertently punishing the Afghan people.

For instance, during the last Afghan election in 2009, Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Karzai "brazenly stole a presidential election that was largely paid for and secured by the United States, counterfeiting at least one-third of his ballots." During the ensuing turmoil, then-Sen. John Kerry was dispatched to salvage the ‘relationship’ with Karzai. But, according to Chayes, instead of helping the situation, Kerry was "reinforcing a pattern." Karzai was able to rewrite the narrative, "making America the villain, railing against its ‘interference’ in the election." She argues correctly that Karzai’s game worked and no one countered him. 

Only a few months later, when Obama addressed the Afghan government’s rampant corruption during his March 2010 visit to Kabul, "Karzai went ballistic, storming out of rooms and theatrically threatening to join the Taliban himself," according to Chayes. Yet instead of holding Karzai to account for both the corruption that fueled the insurgency and his childish behavior, Obama tried to mend the fences during Karzai’s state visit to Washington.

During the ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan and coalition soldiers lost their lives trying to curb the Taliban’s advances and give the Afghan state the breathing space needed to grow its indigenous security force and governance capacity. At the same time, the U.S. administration never challenged Karzai’s references to the Taliban as the "upset brothers," his vitriolic outbursts against coalition operations, and his vilification of those within his own administration who challenged his endearment towards the Taliban.

Then, in November 2013, after Karzai refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), after the Loya Jirga (tribal gathering) — called by Karzai himself — endorsed the security pact, the United States threatened to withdraw all of its forces by December 2014. Although both leading Afghan presidential candidates — Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani — agreed to sign the BSA within days of becoming president, Karzai’s behavior had once again significantly damaged the Afghan-U.S. relationship. In fact, Obama announced in May that U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan only until the end of 2016. Perhaps Obama always intended to have the end of the war coincide with the end of his second term, but there is little doubt that Karzai’s antics have made most Americans turn against U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. 

The most recent Afghan presidential elections offer yet another example of how Karzai continues to gamble the future of Afghanistan and its people for personal gain with little to no concern of the consequences for the average Afghan. Having hand-picked loyal supporters in key positions and having had a helping hand in the creation of a number of presidential teams, Karzai was set to influence the elections from the start. For years, he has been putting mechanisms in place to ensure he would have an ample supply of cards up his sleeve. 

In 2010, for instance, the Guardian‘s Jon Boone noted that while the Afghan parliament was in recess, Karzai "unilaterally took control of the country’s top electoral watchdog" — the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) — in an effort to "Afghanise" it. A Western diplomat told Boone at the time that Karzai "had given ‘two fingers’ to the western donors who had pumped millions of dollars into establishing democratic elections in the country…using his power to make laws while parliament was not sitting in order to get rid of the three U.N.-appointed foreigners who had dominated the five-member ECC."

Although it would be unfair to characterize the attacks on Westerners that occurred prior to the first-round vote in April as advantageous to Karzai, the fact that these attacks forced most foreign election monitors out of the country certainly ensured that the Afghan monitoring commissions were the only ones left to ensure the legitimacy and impartiality of the election. For its part, the international community has known about the troubles brewing with the staffing and leadership of the IEC, but did not do much to mitigate the high risk of fraudulent elections when it could. For example, it was widely known months ahead of the elections that an estimated 19 million voter registration cards were in circulation, even though there were only 13 million registered voters.

Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, the IEC chairman and a longtime Karzai confidant and supporter, downplayed these challenges prior to the election. And his recent decision to not hold his deputy, Zia Ul-Haq Amarkhail, to account for allegations of fraud — at least in Abdullah’s view — indicate that the IEC is not only taking sides, but that it is unable to perform its function as intended by the Afghan Constitution and Electoral Law

As a result, on Saturday, June 21, the Afghan people will take their outrage over the elections to the streets with the start of massive demonstrations. A spark can easily ignite what amounts to an incredibly volatile situation, no matter how much Abdullah’s team wants these events to remain civil and non-violent. Rumors of a possible release of the first tranche of the election results may in fact provide this spark.

Over time, history will reveal the reasons why Karzai has helped shape the presidential tickets in a way that fuels ethnic fears and strife. For now, although resolving the crisis over electoral fraud should take immediate priority, the international community should eventually investigate allegations of Karzai’s misuse of the Afghan state apparatus and his office to set the conditions in which he either remains king or becomes the kingmaker. In the end, even if the coalition doesn’t hold Karzai accountable for his actions soon, the Afghan people and history eventually will.

Unfortunately, the tinder in Afghanistan is dry and doused with lighter fluid; all that is needed is a match and the country can ignite in, at best, sectarian violence; at worst, civil war. The U.S. and U.K. embassies, as well as the U.N. mission, continue to focus on process over substance by urging both Abdullah and Ghani use the IEC and ECC to resolve their challenges and complaints. This approach defies logic as the international community is choosing not to get involved and investigate such powerful allegations with immense implications, advocating, instead, trust in the electoral process of a country that is tied with North Korea and Somalia for corruption. At least they remain consistent in failing to address the biggest issue of this election.

Ironically, much like after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, most of the media attention today has shifted from Afghanistan to covering the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a terrorist organization that is controlling a large part of Iraq’s territory. Obama’s decision to deploy 300 U.S. Special Operations advisors to assist the Iraqi military is receiving primetime coverage while the political crisis in Afghanistan barely merits a mention. This irony is amplified by the fact that Obama is hinting that massive sectarian violence can be arrested in Iraq if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki steps down, yet he remains content to watch from the sidelines in Afghanistan, where Karzai is pushing the country closer to the edge of civil war.

While there is still time for the international community to avert a catastrophe in Afghanistan, that time is quickly running out. 

Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ioannis Koskinas served as a special operations officer for over 20 years. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow at New America and runs a bespoke consultancy firm that focuses on political risk mitigation strategies in frontier markets.

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