Afghanistan election goes on despite war

Friday, August 21, 2009 | 3:28 p.m. CDT

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: The polls have closed in Afghanistan on a presidential election that pits the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, against 41 contenders. In a country fractured by an insurgency, the outcome could mean the downfall of the Karzai government or at least a runoff election. The Taliban have objected to the vote, and there has been violence. Karzai was installed as president by the United States in 2001, and he was elected to the position in 2005. He has grown increasingly unpopular, partly because of corruption by his family members, his ties to the U.S., warlords have long run the country with little interest in democratic processes, and most importantly because of the resurgence of the Taliban who were forced from power in 2001. How did the voting go, and what do you think will be the impact despite whoever wins?

Aunohita Mojumdar, freelance correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Kabul, Afghanistan: There have been no reports of large-scale violence stopping the process. There have been sporadic incidents of violence spread throughout the country, and the turnout has been extremely erratic.

Tilak Pokharel, public relations officer, United Nations Assistance Mission, Jalalabad, Afghanistan: I visited six polling centers in Jalalabad, including about 50 polling stations. In all those places, the polling was remarkable. In some places, the turnout was low, especially in female polling centers. I didn’t see any violence, but there were reports of mortar attacks and explosions.

Loory: In the Jalalabad region, is the Taliban powerful and present all the time?

Pokharel: Not really. It was not able to influence the overall elections, so it was peaceful. Polling opened in most of the polling centers, and it went well.

Loory: Has the election been reasonably honest? Some stories talk about people buying polling cards and casting them several times.

Mojumdar: The officers organizing the election have said that some irregularities are expected in the polling process. The number of registered voters run an incredible 70 percent, which does not clearly reflect the number of voters but the fact that people have perhaps voted several times. People are also more used to the idea of democracy, so they are going to be much less tolerant of these aberrations and irregularities.

Loory: How will this election affect relations between the U.S. and whatever Afghan government is in place?

Claude Salhani, editor, Middle East Times, Washington, D.C.: The U.S. is very concerned by what is going on in Afghanistan. The U.S. is backing Hamid Karzai and would like to see him win. But whoever does win, the Obama administration has no option but to work with that new president to continue what has been started.

Loory: The support for Karzai is no longer as strong as it was during the Bush administration is it?

Salhani: Correct. The Bush administration backed Karzai to the hilt, and the Obama administration is taking a different look. Karzai has been tainted by corruption charges and deals with warlords. This has arisen during the recent campaign in televised debates, something highly unusual for Afghanistan.

Loory: How strong is the other NATO nations’ support for the growing war in Afghanistan?

Brooks Tigner, European Union and NATO correspondent, Jane’s Defense Weekly, Brussels, Belgium: It’s not; this is a problem. Regardless of which government is elected to Kabul, the real acid test is casualties, and those have been rising quite dramatically in the last couple of months. Regardless who is in the seat of power in Kabul, there is risk that the public support in Europe will start to decline for the operation.

Loory: Is Karzai losing support from the NATO governments outside of the U.S. and U.K.?

Tigner: There is widespread disgust with the corruption. The U.S. does put lots of pressure on the allies to support Karzai. But Washington can only push the allies so far, as seen during the 2003 disagreement over the Iraq War.

Mojumdar: The Western countries, especially the U.S., have followed this policy of individualization instead of building institutions. All the powers make it a very centrist state, which I think does not work in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is such a varied country and different parts had more autonomy. Now, everyone is trying to rule every part of the country from the palace.

Tigner: NATO will then say institution building is not really our direct responsibility. That is the excuse they hide behind and then point the finger over to the EU.

Loory: What kind of institutions should be built? Afghanistan is a country that has been run by individuals for decades.

Mojumdar: It has been run by individuals, but they have exercised varying degrees of power over areas outside Kabul, which has been the center between other groups and organizations that have been outside the traditional representative bodies. They had some power at that time. Now, the provincial powers have absolutely no power of any kind.

Loory: In such a country, how can a democratic election actually take place?

Mojumdar: It is a misnomer to say that Afghans have not had democracy. There have been democratic processes in Afghanistan, but the participation has been extremely small. The principles of democracy have been there all along, it has just been broadened and widened.

Loory: Given the strong possibility that Karzai is going to win, what can be done about the problems in Afghanistan?

Tigner: One key institution to be built is the ANA, the Afghan National Army. NATO is playing a key role in this, but one of the problems is that the so-called ANA trust fund, which is supposed to provide material and funding for the army, is terribly underfunded. This is a key point that the NATO nations now must address postelection, whether they are going to get serious about building the ANA up to the strength of 130,000 soldiers.

Loory: What is being done to control opium, and has that been an issue in the election campaign in any way?

Pokharel: Especially in the last couple of years, due to strong measures taken up by provincial governments, production has come down remarkably. Of course, it is not the end, but it is happening all across the country.

Tigner: Yes, the production levels might be going down in a given year, but this is one of the main concerns for the international community. The ability of the Taliban to fund its operation using narcotics is an issue that will have to be addressed after this election with a new government.

Loory: Much of the government in Afghanistan is run by Afghans who have a lot of experience overseas, particularly in the U.S. These people coming back to Afghanistan are controversial. How important are they?

Salhani: One of the presidential candidates was educated at American schools, got his Ph.D. at Columbia, went to Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, then went back to become minister of finance. These people have lived in the West, and some of them go back and try to implement Western ideas and notions of government, and it is very alien to a lot of the people in Afghanistan. For example, during the presidential debate on Afghani TV, one of the candidates said that he had never spoken to a warlord. This is hard to imagine in a place where the warlords are so prominent and so important.

Loory: But even the warlords have Western connections don’t they?

Salhani: Well yes, the NATO forces and Americans have learned that they need them to get things done on the ground; without the blessing of the local tribal leader, you get nothing accomplished. They were forced to deal with them, which gives these warlords even more power.

Loory: To what extent is the U.S. concerned about airstrikes that have killed Afghan civilians, and what is it doing to mitigate that problem?

Salhani: There has been quite some action taken to try and minimize that, but in such a remote war, it remains a difficult task.

Loory: This is a widening war in Afghanistan and that will be the controlling influence there for years to come.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George, Brian Jarvis, Liz Lance, Melissa Ulbricht and Megan Weigand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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