Constitutional Death Spiral in Afghanistan

11/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The U.S. is pinwheeling its arms on the edge of a very deep abyss in Afghanistan. In a Nixon-like display of corruption and paranoia, Hamid Karzai and his cronies, who would likely have won a legitimate election, engaged in such widespread vote fraud that Afghanistan likely faces either renewed civil conflict or a constitutional death spiral. These factors render General Stanley McChrystal's strategic assessment, which refers to its own "most important component" as "a strong partnership with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) that will build the capacity needed to provide Afghanistan with a stable future," myopic in the extreme. In this context, a review that includes such useless prescriptions as "Promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people," shows how far into fantasy land U.S. "strategic thinking" has strayed.

Simply put, the political is killing us in Afghanistan. The self-inflicted wounds in the political arena we've bestowed upon ourselves since 2002 may be irreversible and terminal. One thing is certain: if the president can't break out out of the imaginary Afghanistan his advisers are creating for him, we are dead, and we won't be the only ones.

Even before the August 20 poll, Abdullah's supporters were predicting Iran-style protests "with Kalashnikovs" if President Hamid Karzai won in the first round, insisting he could do so only by cheating.

The price of Kalashnikovs has doubled in Afghanistan. For a country awash with arms, the fact that the weapons are now fetching $600 apiece is a cause of some surprise, but a surge of demand is to blame for the increase, with a steady stream of weapons said to be heading for the north.

This is the Tajik constituency of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who claims the election is being stolen by the incumbent Western-backed President, Hamid Karzai.

Despite international pressure, Abdullah has flatly stated he would not accept a position in a unity government. Instead, he wants a second round vote, and a leaked report from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights shows he's likely justified in his demands:

The Sunday Times has obtained a report by monitors from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, completed yesterday, which said 1,253,806 votes -- 23% of the total counted so far -- could be fraudulent.

According to the analysis, if all these votes were cancelled then Abdullah's share would increase by almost 4 percentage points to 32.03%. Karzai's share would drop by 6.62 points to 47.48%, triggering a second round. The share of Ramazan Bashardost, the third-placed candidate, would rise to 10.7%.

The Afghan Electoral Law states an election run-off must be held "within 2 weeks after the announcement of the election results". However, a modified schedule had been organised stipulating a second round in the first days of October. As a result of the Electoral Complaints Commission stipulating recounts and audits, this schedule cannot be maintained and final results may well not be known for several weeks.

If a run-off or revote is necessary, this would not be hampered in the next months by the harsh winter conditions in many areas of northern Afghanistan. This would delay the second round until spring - leaving Afghanistan in a constitutional vacuum for months. There are no provisions in the Afghan Constitution to allow President Karzai to continue in the Presidency in such circumstances.

"This raises the possibility of both a lack of legal authority in the Presidency and resulting political instability and government paralysis dragging on for many months," said MacDonald. "There are a lot of questions to be asked at the moment and no good answers being offered. Great uncertainties lie ahead."

So, let's review:

  • We validated a corrupted loya jirga outcome in 2002 that put thugs, warlords, and drug lords in charge of Afghanistan and that silenced democratic reformers.
  • We put our stamp of approval on a corrupted 2004 election, which further normalized vote fraud in the Afghan "democracy."
  • The corruption infesting the Afghan government came to full flower in this past month's election, resulting not only in political unrest, but causing an extended vote verification process that will likely delay a certification of the election beyond the climate's point of no return for a recount.

Now, there are only two obvious ways forward:

  1. The election commission moves forward with a certification of Karzai's win, setting off the "protests with Kalashnakovs," i.e., civil war between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns (welcome back to problem to which the Taliban were the solution).
  2. The election commission declares a runoff that must be delayed until spring to make it possible for the Tajiks to cast their votes. This delay will mean that the constitutional mandate for the Karzai government will expire before the results of the runoff can be certified, which is to say that the government, legally, will cease to exist.

If #1 happens, the counterinsurgents (that's us) will be put in the position of defending an illegitimate government against patriots rejecting the theft of their government by people largely seen as U.S. stooges. If #2 happens, then counterinsurgency is not possible because the vote fraud which the incumbents participated in triggered a process that annihilated their own legitimacy.

Regardless of whether you think this war is just or unjust; regardless of whether you think COIN was the right strategy; regardless of whether you believed prior to the election that we need more troops or less troops; whether you think 9/11 required a military response or any of a number of alternatives; the United States has poured massive amounts of blood and treasure into giving the Kabul government a chance to take root, and that investment has not been answered by good faith efforts to create a democratic future for the Afghan people. Instead, it's been answered by actions so base and self-serving on the part of Karzai and his cronies that following the only legal processes for untangling their mess without risking a bloody civil war will drive a legal paradox that revokes their constitutional mandate.

This paradox has one bright, shining meaning: the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan failed democracy's test. They are not worth one more drop of U.S. blood. They are certainly not worth the accidental killing of one more Afghan civilian on the conscience of troops put in a no-win situation by U.S. policymakers unwilling to read the writing on the wall.

It's over. It's done. Kobayashi Maru. It's no longer a question of whether Afghanistan is "worth it." The only question left to answer is, "how much more Hell will we put our young men and women through because we don't have the political courage to admit the truth, and act?"

Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.