Karzai in His Labyrinth
By ELIZABETH RUBIN
New York times, August 9, 2009
On a sunny June morning in Kabul, I sat among hundreds of turbaned men from Afghanistan’s Helmand and Kandahar provinces in a chandeliered wedding hall where they had gathered for a campaign rally to re-elect President Hamid Karzai. War was raging in Helmand and Kandahar. And yet there was an atmosphere of burlesque about the place. Waiters hammed up their service, skidding across the floor balancing mounds of rice, bananas and chicken, whirling shopping carts of Coke and Fanta. The organizer of the event and master of ceremonies was none other than Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, the five-foot-tall ex-governor of Helmand and probably the country’s most infamous drug trafficker. From a velvet couch he barked out to the speakers: “Not so many poems! Keep your speeches short!” — but no one was listening.
At my table, an elderly Helmandi engineer described how awful things were in his region — families killed in coalition airstrikes, villages overrun by the Taliban. So why more Karzai? “If we choose someone else, it will only get worse,” he said through an interpreter. Another man said that at least Karzai had brought education and unity. “They are all lying,” a third said in English. He was the son of a prominent Kandahari elder who, a year before, was assassinated outside the family’s house. He’d also lost his uncle, brother and 45 other members of his extended family, he told me. He blamed the government. He was shaking his head at the spectacle in the wedding hall. “I told the men at my table, ‘You just came to show your faces on camera so if Karzai wins he will give you privileges.’ ” He laughed and said, “They told me they just came for lunch.” I asked what he thought would happen during the election in Kandahar. “Fraud,” he said. He himself claimed to have made 8,000 fake voter-registration cards. They were selling for $20.
After lunch, in a downstairs room filled with mannequins in pink and green wedding gowns, I had a chat with Akhundzada, the ex-governor. He is campaigning in the south for Karzai. First he wanted to explain that the nine tons of drugs found in his compound in 2005 were planted there by the British to frame him. Then he changed tack: “If people think I was a smuggler, O.K. But at least I spent the money on government and soldiers! Now the money goes to the Taliban and kills British and Americans and Afghan soldiers.” This is the same logic that Karzai used to try to get Akhundzada reinstalled as governor of Helmand. The British would not accept it. This seemed distinctly unfair to Akhundzada, given the other characters on the political stage: “They don’t take Fahim out of elections? Dostum is not criminal? Mohaqiq is not criminal? Just me?”
It was a comical and sinister and telling performance — a prominent Karzai backer damning key members of the president’s re-election team (locally dubbed “the warlord ticket”). The ethnic-Tajik Muhammad Fahim is running as Karzai’s first vice president (having previously served in the same post and as defense minister); the ethnic-Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum is returning from Turkey to deliver Uzbek votes to Karzai; and the ethnic-Hazara politician Muhammad Mohaqiq is a key Karzai ally to whom Karzai pledged five ministerial posts.
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