Afghans are in for a generous helping of Cajun-style political campaigning in the run-up to the country's August presidential elections. James Carville, working on an election in his 21st country, isn't mincing words about the incumbent he hopes to unseat.
"It's not an ungovernable place," says Carville of Afghanistan. "It's ungovernable by an incompetent, but the place isn't."
Would that "incompetent" be the U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai?
"Yes. Yeah, definitely," he said. "Yes."
Carville is hoping to bring to Ashraf Ghani the same magic he brought Arkansan Bill Clinton in 1992. And he'll do it much the same way, focusing on the economy, stupid, expanding on the strategy somewhat by connecting his rival with drug-runners and warlords operating within his government.
Col. Ollie North, meet Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. "What's happened here is Karzai made a deal with most of them," says Carville, referring to Afghan warlords who operate with relative autonomy and are tied to the drug trade. Dostum is the most notorious of those warlords, accused of being responsible for the massacre of more than 1,000 prisoners. "One of the things that the incumbent has done is, it's generally acknowledged by everybody, he's made deals that they can retain their sort of areas of dominance. I won't call it influence," Carville said in an interview with the Huffington Post.
But let's not take it too far, said Carville. "But you have to be a little careful because like everything else there's subtle gradations here," he says. "Ashram believes that...the government should run the country. [He's] sort of opposed to individual fiefdoms out there. Again, it's kind of treacherous to the extent that it's a little different situation than we sort of think about here."
That's for sure. Carville's focus is on the economy. Rather than trying to pull the unemployment rate down below 5 percent, his concerns are more about running water and reliable electricity.
"Seventy-seven percent of homes, according to an ABC poll, don't have electricity. We're very into that kind of clean-water-in-every-village [strategy]. We're saying that people can take charge of their lives," he said.
First, though, they have to avoid getting kidnapped. "That's a big issue, just general lawlessness," said Carville. "Security, but not the war, in terms of not being kidnapped as people go about their lives."
Carville's unimpressed by Karzai's 2004 win. "This is the first time in the history of the country that they've really had a choice. I don't want to say that Karzai's election was not, he didn't actually win, but the opposition was really, really weak," says Carville.
Ultimately, he wants to give the people hope. "First and foremost, our sense is that there was this great optimism in the country in 2004," says Carville. "The great promise of 2004 has not been fulfilled."
To elect Ghani, however, Afghans would have to reject the U.S.-installed candidate who had lived in America, for another candidate with an American background.
"By anybody's estimation, he just seems awesome," says Carville of his candidate, Ghani. "He was a finalist to be U.N. secretary; he was finance minister there, he's been on the faculty at Johns Hopkins, UC-Berkeley; he's got one of the most sterling resumes in the world. And I think he's a remarkable guy."
Carville's campaigning has taken him all over the world, where he tutors candidates in the American method of campaigning. He's worked for candidates in the United Kingdom, Canada and Israel, but also in Bolivia, where he backed Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. (He won, but is now in exile in the U.S. fighting an extradition request from Bolivia.)
Campaigning in Afghanistan presents a spinmeister like Carville with a set of challenges he doesn't face in more developed nations. With three-quarters of Afghans without power, polling, the stock and trade of the campaign consultant, is effectively impossible.
"I wish I could spin you better...I wish I could tell you, well, the polls show us moving, or the polls show us sort of behind," he says. "The best poll is the ABC poll done every New Year's. I very much rely on that, although it's kind of a poll seven months old now."
As complicated as the campaign is for Carville, it also complicates things for Carville's good friend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Carville was a senior advisor in her husband, Bill Clinton's, administration, advised her presidential bid, and, as recently as May 28th, was helping to raise money to retire her campaign debt by signing a fundraising email.
He brushes off the conflict of interest, saying that the U.S. is not endorsing a candidate and that his involvement shouldn't be seen as such. "In the course of a certain event I probably send out seven or eight emails, fundraisers to people," he says of the pitch, "and I would be stunned if the secretary knew or was aware of it."
What's it cost for an Afghan candidate to secure the services of a top American consultant? Carville, who will be traveling to Afghanistan to help his man campaign, isn't telling. "It depends," he laughs.
To hear Carville tell it, he'd almost be willing to do it for free. "I'll be 65 in October, and this is a big thrill for me," he says. "It's unusual but it's terrific fun. It's a great place to work. It's really fascinating."
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