Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Karzai Heads For Five More Years

Early results from the election in Afghanistan show a solid lead for the current President, Hamid Karzai. He's leading his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, by around 43 percent to 34 with about half the votes counted. That means the two men will go head to head again in a run-off election in October, but there seems little doubt that Mr Karzai will win.

After the Taliban was ousted by the US-led coalition late in 2001, there was a bit of a scramble to find someone who could lead Afghanistan. Mr Abdullah was, in those days, foreign minister and spokesman of the Northern Alliance, which had done the legwork for the coalition by driving the Taliban out of the cities and into the hills. The Alliance was a ragtag assortment of various anti-Taliban groups, but because they generally weren't drawn from Afghanistan's Pashtun majority (Mr Abdullah is half-Pashtun, half-Tajik), the west sought out a Pashtun tribal leader who had authority, could speak English, and wasn't linked too closely to the Taliban. Hamid Karzai was just about the only man in Afghanistan who fitted that description, so he got the job.

And although it's now the Afghan people making the decision (or at least the 5 million of them who weren't too frightened by threats of Taliban violence to vote), Hamid Karzai is still the only person the west can think of to lead Afghanistan. They haven't much liked a lot of what he's done since he came to power. He hasn't got a firm enough grip on his country, the critics say, he hasn't done enough to get rid of corruption, or crack down on the Taliban, or sort out the country's infrastructure, or control its borders.

Much of that is true, but it's hardly all Mr Karzai's fault. Afghanistan has always been a tribal, disparate sort of place, with lots of groups of people who have little loyalty towards elders from the next town, let alone government ministers in distant Kabul. As for the man himself, he's played a canny game of late, making sure well-known and popular Afghans such as the controversial General Dostum weighed in on his behalf during the recent campaign. Mr Karzai hardly enjoys overwhelming popular support in Afghanistan, but he's so far been able to get enough of his supporters out to vote. As for those sceptical western leaders, they at least feel they can do business with him. And more to the point, they can't think of anyone else who they'd rather have in his place. Expect Mr Karzai to keep his job for a few years yet.

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