Ten years ago, a horrific suicide bombing carried out by Algerian al-Qaeda operatives posing as journalists snuffed out the life of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the great Afghan Mujahidin leader and among the few Afghans who could have hoped to unite the country against the Taliban. Massoud told journalist Sebastian Junger that he opposed the religious totalitarianism of the Taliban just as he opposed the ideological totalitarianism of the Soviets, and wanted to work for an Afghanistan, and a world, that was free. Since that act of horror, Afghanistan itself has gradually fallen back into ethnic and religious warfare, which US and NATO troops either inadvertently fanned or at the least proved unable to halt.
The Bonn conference of late 2001 ensconced Hamid Karzai in the interim presidency of Afghanistan. Karzai, from Uruzgan, was one of a very few credible leaders of Pashtun background who had neither been Taliban nor absolutely hated Pakistan. He was acceptable to the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban coalition that had held out in the northeast of the country, comprising fighters from the Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek ethnic groups. (Tajiks are Dari Persian-speaking Sunnis, Hazaras are Persian-speaking Shiites, and Uzbeks are Turkic-speaking Sunnis with a relatively secular outlook).
This tale of two leaders– the heroic, beloved and upright Ahmad Shah Massoud, and the erratic, paranoid and increasingly power-hungry Karzai — is the story of Afghan political decline. Karzai won a relatively free and fair presidential campaign in 2004. But his run for the presidency in 2009 was marred by allegations of widespread ballot-stuffing.
At the same time, scandals broke around him, as his brothers or high officials were mired in the Da Kabul Bank scandal. The bank appears to have been looted by its own investors and money used to by villas in Dubai. Norway, along with some internaional hosts, has suspended aid to Afghanistan until the mystery of the Bank’s missing funds is resolved.
Not only were there charges of widespread irregularities in the 2009 presidential election, but the parliamentary elections of a year ago were likewise attended with accusations of ballot fraud. At length, a special presidential tribunal on the elections disqualified 62 of the members of parliament elected in 2010. The ruling was viewed with suspicion, since these 62 were political opponents of Karzai, so in essence he was attempting to turn out his opposition.
The ruling so infuriated parliament that it opened discussions on whether to impeach Karzai.
A more independent body, the Independent Election Commission, in contrast, said that only nine MPS needed step down. Karzai attempted to mediate between the two rulings by presidential decree, but the decree issued was so vague and ambiguous that no one could understand what he was driving at. The controversy has paralyzed the workings of parliament, and yesterday provoked a small demonstration of some 600 in downtown Kabul. They chanted not only against Karzai but against the US and NATO.
As a result of these financial and electoral scandals, Karzai increasingly lacks legitimacy. This outcome is important because the new Afghan army being trained by NATO can only hope to succeed in counter-insurgency if its troops and officers believe in the government for which they are fighting. There isn’t good evidence as yet for the army being able to fight large-scale engagements independently, or for its loyalty to Karzai or the (disputed) parliament.
Usama Bin Laden knew what he was doing when he knocked off Ahmad Shah Massoud on the eve of 9/11. He deprived the anti-Taliban Afghans of a unifying, competent figure. The old terrorist’s legacy to Afghanistan was one of continued instability.