He didn't look pleased, said a local paper about Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reaction to Obama's election victory. The KabulPress website went even further, saying the whole presidential palace in Kabul is mourning the Republicans' defeat in Washington. If I were Karzai, I too would be upset. No more happy rides in the Bush mobile under the blue Texan sky. No more bragging about special friends in the White House. No more "I was on the phone to President Bush last night and we talked about the Konar River", blah, blah, blah. The local papers say now that the Republicans in the US have been told to clear off, it's time for their Afghan stooges to quit too, for Afghanistan is in dire need of change.
The fact is that Afghans had their own moment of hope seven years ago with the fall of the Taliban, but thanks to US neocons and their Afghan allies that hope died rapidly. In the words of Bahlol Lodhi, a contributing writer for the Anti-War website, "The shibboleth that Afghanistan is a democracy with a constitution, an elected president, and an elected parliament must be consigned to the dustbin of bad jokes. The Afghan people certainly don't believe it, nor do those foreign professionals whose careers have not depended on inventing and perpetuating the myth."
Still, with Obama's victory hope has returned to Afghanistan. Not the jubilant, teary-eyed hope of the Americans, but the cautious hope of a people who had three decades of exposure to US foreign policy and hence know Washington far too well to get all emotional. I will not go into details of US "mistakes" in Afghanistan, such as unlawful arrests or civilian air strike casualties, because Cif readers often volunteer to list them in their comments, but suffice it to say that if we lived in a truly fair world, the US would offer an apology to the Afghan people. That day may come yet, but for now, here's how the local press reacted to Obama's victory.
"Many politicians and observers are optimistic that Barack Obama's presence in the White House will lead to an untying of the twisted strategic knot in Afghanistan," said an article on the KabulPress news website. A poster responded to this optimistic view with a note of caution. He said that some warlords have already started trying to endear themselves to the US president-elect, presumably in the hope of gaining Obama's support -- much-needed if any of them were to try and become Afghanistan's president in the 2009 election. Take the example of Borhanuddin Rabbani, the man who was the Afghan president during the civil war years of the early 1990s. He "has sent a message of congratulation to Obama, presenting himself as a symbol of democracy and human rights". Rabbani a symbol of human rights and democracy? But wait, it gets even better. Apparently, Rabbani's message finishes with a cute little pun: "Obamas", meaning "he is with us" in Dari.
The fear that Afghan warlords might have misunderstood Obama's message of "Yes we can," interpreting it as a message of empowerment for war-criminals rather than the people, also echoed in an editorial by the daily newspaper Arman-e Melli. The editorial said a number of opportunists who, for eight years, have been willingly dancing to George Bush's drum have now begun to sing Obama's praise: "They hit their chests with their fists shouting slogans of Obama-worship. But they are ignorant of the fact that the people of Afghanistan know exactly who supported the school of extremist thought led by George Bush." The paper added that this time, the public is not going to be fooled by beautiful political slogans formulated in election times.
"Obama must also strive for change in Afghanistan," said a headline on the Salam Watandar news website. The article said in a recent press conference, Afghan MPs told reporters that the people of Afghanistan also desire change. Watandar quoted Ahmad Behzad, an MP from Herat province, as saying that the new US administration should only lend its support to the people of Afghanistan and try not to back any particular candidate in next year's presidential election. This is to make sure that "the future president of Afghanistan is not elected from within the confines of a foreign embassy in Kabul".
"By electing Obama, Americans have opted for the path of negotiation and communication," said Payam-e Mujahid. The paper said that in view of the present crisis in the US, change is not going to happen overnight. But still, by making the right choice, Americans have made their first step in the right direction. As elsewhere in the world, Obama's victory received much praise and admiration in independent local media outlets, but two parties stood out for keeping their cool and remaining aloof. One was the Afghan government and the other, its current arch-enemy, the Taliban. Hence, state-run newspapers refrained from making a fuss about Obama's victory, while the Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, said that the Taliban felt neither joy nor sorrow over Obama's election.
That's the reaction by the independent press and the official line, then, but what about Kabul's rumour market? It was bustling as usual. Word has it that as soon as the election was decided in the US, secret meetings started to take place behind closed doors in Kabul and Dubai. In Dubai, the official cover was a gathering of the business community, though in reality, key political figures had come together, feverishly absorbed in political bargaining in an effort to come up with an acceptable candidate for the 2009 presidential election. The energetic to-ing and fro-ing was driven by the suspicion that the US has already chosen its own favorite Afghan candidate, who will be kept in reserve for now but revealed come election time.
The UK, another rumour goes, also has its own plans. That's why over the recent weeks the British envoy has been seen going back and forth between the embassy and the presidential palace where private meetings were held with President Karzai. True or not, the Afghan rumour bazaar is right about one thing -- the new US administration is determined to see Republican supporters in Afghanistan pack up their belongings and quit the scene.
The article originally appeared in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/12/afghanistan-us-election/print