Karzai, the Pashtuns, and the Taliban

The prospects for Afghanistan's election on Thursday are murky, at best.

The Taliban are threatening to disrupt the vote in areas south and east
of Kabul, where they are strong, and say that they will take reprisals
against anyone who votes. "Afghans must boycott the deceitful American
project and head for the trenches of holy war," said a communique from
the Taliban. The Taliban, which is overwhelmingly Pashtun, is
apparently counting on its ability to persuade or intimidate Pashtuns
to stay away from the polls, which could doom or weaken Karzai. An excellent analysis in the New York Times by Dexter Filkins notes that the Pashtun vote is critical to Karzai's chances on Thursday:

"Five years ago, Mr. Karzai rode to an election victory
on a wave of support from his fellow Pashtuns, who make up about 40
percent of Afghanistan's population."

Karzai, who is himself a Pashtun from Kandahar, the Taliban's
stronghold, is working hard to get Pashtuns to the polls. Ahmad Wali
Karzai, the president's brother and the wily head of the Kandahar
provincial council, told Al Jazeera in an interview:
"Pashtun votes are extremely important, because Pashtuns are the
majority in Afghanistan. I don't think, without the Pashtun votes, no
one can win."

But are the Taliban truly opposed to the election? It isn't clear.
According to Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan's intelligence chief, deals
have been made with Taliban commanders in "lots of provinces," the Times
says, to allow the vote to proceed -- and, presumably, with
Taliban-leaning and Taliban-influenced Pashtuns voting for Karzai.
Saleh says that this "diplomatic effort" and "softer approach" allows
the Karzai regime to appeal to the Taliban's low-level commanders and
sympathizers without using violence, and he said that the accords that
have been struck "show that cohesion in the command of the Taliban is

Hard to tell if that's true or, on the contrary, if the Taliban can
muster the cohesion to oppose the elections in the 45 percent of the
country they're said to control. Personally, I have no idea. In a brilliant op-ed today,
"Afghanistan's Tyranny of the Minority," Selig Harrison points out that
Afghanistan's Pashtun majority is extremely unhappy with the Karzai
administration because -- despite the fact that Karzai is a Pashtun --
it is dominated by non-Pashtun ethnic minorities, especially Tajiks,
who control the armed forces, the intelligence service,
counter-narcotics forces, and more. It's the remnants of the old
Northern Alliance that control Afghanistan, Harrison reminds us,
including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and other minorities who hated the
Taliban's rule during the 1990s through 2001. (The NA, you'll recall,
was supported by Russia, India, and Iran, while Pakistan's ISI
supported the Taliban.)

Karzai may be trying to appeal to the Pashtuns, but he's not helping
his case by showering favor on thuggish, anti-Taliban warlords. His
Tajik running mate, a former defense minister named Mohammad Fahim, is
intensely disliked by Pashtuns. And yesterday he allowed the
violence-prone Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, to return from
exile in Turkey; in 2001, Dostum was responsible for the murders of
hundreds of Taliban prisoners in northern Afghanistan. By positioning
himself so closely to Fahim and Dostum, Karzai is blatantly appealing
for the non-Pashtun minority votes from Kabul and the northern half of
the country. It's ugly ethnic politics at its worst.

Yesterday, in the only campaign debate in which Karzai took part, he took the occasion to reiterate his calls for negotiation
with the Taliban, a position that seems to reflect Amrullah Saleh's
comments. And Karzai, despite his Tajik and Uzbek allies, has
consistently called for talks with the top Taliban leadership, not just
its mid-ranking commanders and tribal leaders. Despite such calls,
however, it's hard to pull off while Karzai (a) remains in thrall to
the Northern Alliance and (b) seems prisoner of the US
counterinsurgency effort. In the debate, Karzai said: "Afghanistan ... was totally lost. I saved it."

That, at least, is an exaggeration.

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