Deeming Afghanistan 'democratic' is delusional

With the eyes of the world focused on the brutal violence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the power play of international brinkmanship in eastern Ukraine, the recent dramatic developments in Afghanistan have been given rather short shrift in the Western media.

On Sept. 29, 2014, a ceremony in Kabul inaugurated new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the same time they hailed Abdullah Abdullah for becoming that nation’s first ever chief executive officer. Putting a bold spin on this, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described this occasion as a “triumph of statesmanship and compromise … marking the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan history and the first peaceful leadership transition in more than 40 years.”

If any of what Kerry had claimed were actually true, it might indeed be something to celebrate. However, despite the brave-sounding words, Kerry’s statement is an admission that after 13 years of international occupation, Afghanistan never accepted democracy.

The initial round of presidential elections took place last April. There was a record voter turnout, and a commensurate record number of electoral fraud allegations. When the dust settled, neither of the two leading candidates, Ghani nor Abdullah, had the necessary majority. Thus, a run-off vote between these two was conducted on June 14, 2014.

Since those ballots were cast, there has never been an official tally released to the public. Instead, there has been months-long backroom negotiations presided over by the U.S.

As it seemed clear that Abdullah had finished second at the polls, the Tajik warlord threatened to denounce the results and proclaim himself president. Such a move would certainly spark hostilities anew between those Afghan factions currently in a loose alliance against the Taliban.

To placate Abdullah, the U.S. dreamt up the position of CEO for him to fill. When this idea was first floated a few weeks ago, Abdullah noted that under the newly drafted job description, the president could terminate the CEO position at any time. Being a wily survivor, Abdullah said ‘no dice’ to the Americans and threatened again to pull out of the process and plunge Afghanistan into civil war.

After more backroom wheeling and dealing — called “statesmanship and compromise” by Kerry — Abdullah now feels that the CEO post will grant him enough security and authority to assuage his ego. The decision was also taken not to release the actual election results.

Just to recap then: What Kerry described as a “democratic transfer of power” and a “peaceful leadership transition” was in fact a process in which the actual votes didn’t matter and the constitution was altered to create a CEO post under threat that a candidate would start a war. That is one hell of a spin, even for an American secretary of state!

Another result of this democratic process is that infamous Uzbek warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, is now the first vice president. As a Pashtun leader, Ghani needed a running mate who could win him votes among the northern Afghans. That is the reality of Afghanistan’s ethnic and tribal divisions.

I have interviewed Dostum on three separate occasions — twice at his northern stronghold in the city of Shebhirgan and once at this palatial mansion in Kabul. Although he had been granted the nominal post as army chief of staff, Dostum always maintained his own well-equipped militia. He has been a prominent warlord since the Soviet occupation in 1979 and has a reputation for switching his loyalty, but also mercilessly killing his enemies.

After my first visit with Dostum in May 2007, I had returned to Kabul to meet with various international observers. Most were astonished to learn that I had actually interviewed Dostum in his private lair and were keen to learn of any details I might have garnered, such as his health and the size of his militia. I had a different response from former Canadian ambassador, Chris Alexander, who was at that juncture the deputy head of the UN mission in Kabul.

Since being named Canada’s youngest and first ever ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander had been an energetic, overly optimistic cheerleader for the international intervention. Upon learning that I had made the trek to see Dostum, Alexander was perturbed that I would be perpetuating the myth that the old warlords still had power in the ‘new’ Afghanistan that he and his colleagues were creating.

Self-delusion is a dangerous reality, and while Alexander saw progress and Kerry sees democracy, all I see is an Afghanistan still ruled by bickering warlords while the Taliban continue to elude defeat. Some triumph.