Connect to share and comment

Who's pulling the strings in Afghan elections?

Despite the rhetoric surrounding Afghanistan’s "democratic elections," there are signs that the outcome is predetermined.

Afghans listen to a speech by former Afghan finance minister and presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani during an election campaign in Kabul May 17, 2009. The two main opposition candidates in Afghanistan are in talks about uniting to defeat president Hamid Karzai in August's election, one of them has said. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The list is out: Barring any radical developments during the vetting process, more than 44 candidates will stand in Afghanistan’s second post-Taliban presidential elections, scheduled for August 20.

Don’t let the plethora of names fool you. The roll may contain a prince or two, a self-proclaimed genius, a corrupt local police chief and a former Taliban with a talent for rocket launching, but by all accounts there is really only one serious contender — the incumbent, Hamed Karzai.

Karzai is no favorite of the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, or, indeed, of many of his own countrymen. But, according to Kabul insiders, attempts to groom a successor just did not pan out.

“Karzai will be made president,” said Ahmad Saeedi, political analyst and former diplomat, who at various times served in Pakistan, India and Iran. “But if the ballots were counted fairly, no one would vote for him.”

Ali Ahmad Jalali, a frontrunner who was widely supposed to be the choice of the U.S. State Department, dropped out of the race at the last minute, giving rise to speculation that he was loath to part with his American passport, or perhaps was afraid of the close scrutiny of the campaign.

But according to Saeedi, the real reason is a bit more complex, and has its roots in Washington, D.C.

 “I was there when Jalali took a call from Holbrooke,” he said, referring to U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. “When he out down the phone, he said ‘I will not be a candidate.’ ”

Holbrooke has said, publicly and repeatedly, that the United States would not back any single candidate for the elections. But the assurances sound a bit hollow to Afghan ears.

“Washington has made its choice,” Saeedi said. “There is no real alternative to Karzai.”

While Karzai may have the title, he may not have much else, say Afghan and U.S. officials. There is a push on to install Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, as the power behind the throne.