NEW YORK--"For five years, Mr. Karzai was my president," Ashraf Ghani, an opposition candidate, bemoaned after widespread reports that incumbent Hamid Karzai had used fraud on a massive scale to steal the election. "Now how many Afghans will consider him their president?"
Not many. In a country where civil war is a national pastime, this is not good. But Ghani is asking the wrong question. The real question is how many Americans will continue to see Karzai as viable and be willing to pay the price of propping him up?
California Sen. Diane Feinstein used to support Karzai. "Afghanistan is our beachhead on our war on terror. We cannot lose it, or we lose our war on terror," she said in 2002. What a difference seven years makes. "I do not believe we can build a democratic state in Afghanistan," she said last week.
Americans are finally waking up. Afghanistan, most people finally understand, is not "the good war" but the stupid one. We can't win. Even worse, there's nothing to win. The historical parallels aren't perfect--they never are--but it's hard not to think of the cost of propping up the corrupt Diem regime and its successors in South Vietnam when you see Hamid Karzai prancing around in Kabul, never an arm's length away from U.S. Special Forces commandos. You see, Karzai's own troops can't be trusted not to kill him.
There were at least 800 fake polling sites on Afghanistan's election day--places that "existed only on paper," reported The New York Times. "We think that about 15 percent of the polling sites never opened on Election Day," the paper quoted a "senior Western diplomat."
"But they still managed to report thousands of ballots for Karzai," the Times story stated. "Mr. Karzai's supporters also took over approximately 800 [additional] legitimate polling centers and used them to fraudulently report tens of thousands of additional ballots for Mr. Karzai."
Actually, make that hundreds of thousands. In "Kandahar ... preliminary results indicate that more than 350,000 ballots have been turned in to be counted. But Western officials estimated that only about 25,000 people actually voted there," the story states. "Pro-Karzai ballots may exceed the people who actually voted by a factor of 10."
The truth is, there's nothing new here. Ashraf Ghani may have been the only Afghan to have ever considered Karzai legitimate. To most Afghans, Karzai has always been a curious "impotent dictator," propped up by U.S. military force but with insufficient funding to exert his power outside the capital of Kabul. In the provinces, tribal warlords fight the Taliban for control.
Looking at Karzai's resume, it's hard to imagine what George W. Bush and his "pet Afghan" Zalmay Khalilzad were thinking when they appointed Karzai as the U.S. puppet "interim president" of occupied Afghanistan in late 2001. Granted, all three were oilmen--Karzai and Khalilzad had both worked as consultants for the energy corporation Unocal, which tried to build an oil-gas pipeline across Afghanistan in the '90s.
But Karzai lacked both integrity--as a Taliban official in 1997, Karzai was caught embezzling government funds and forced to flee the country--and support.
Karzai's drive to consolidate power since 2001 has been marked by trickery, intimidation, ballot stuffing and systemic corruption. One "election" has followed another. But none have been conducted legitimately.
Perhaps democracy was too much to hope for in a nation whose infrastructure had been degraded to the 14th century. There was no census, no house addresses, no mail service. How could a fair election be held?
Karzai didn't even try. At a June 2002 loya jirga (grand assembly) to choose the new head of state, Karzai got his U.S. masters to lean on his main rival, former king Mohammed Zahir Shah. Zahir Shah withdrew, as did 70 of his delegates. They did the same to ex-president Burhanuddin Rabbani.
"Voting for the loya jirga has been plagued by violence and vote-buying," said U.N. envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi at the time. "There were attempts at manipulation, violence, unfortunately. Money was used, threats were used."
On Oct. 9, 2004, Karzai "won" his first "democratic election." As before, Karzai's goons stacked the deck. Unsympathetic elections officials were kidnapped. The United Nations concluded that "fraud had occurred, particularly ballot-box stuffing" in the 2004 election. The United Nations "noted that some estimates have said that 10 percent to 15 percent of the 11.5 million registered voters, in Afghanistan and among Afghan refugees abroad, may be registered more than once," reported the Times at the time. The three-member committee that counted the ballots were all appointed by Karzai.
Those who can't win, cheat. Without the United States, Karzai would never have won power. He certainly wouldn't have kept it.
Meanwhile, the Times reported May 18, 2009, that Khalilzad "could assume a powerful, unelected position inside the Afghan government under a plan he is discussing with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, according to senior American and Afghan officials."
Bush's corrupt oilmen are still looting Afghanistan. The question for Americans is: why should anyone die to help them?
Ted Rall is author of the books To Afghanistan and Back and Silk Road to Ruin.