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A hidden denial in the Afghan election

U.S. missteps in Afghanistan stretch back to the Bush administration's decision to court the warlords.

A Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, wrote in his book "Descent Into Chaos" about a European diplomat’s shock at the American strategy. “ ‘Giving the warlords a front seat was a blow to the Afghans and a negative symbol of U.S. influence,’ said one ambassador.”

Operating under the false assumption that warlords were always a fundamental aspect of governance in Afghanistan, few in the media or Washington policy establishment questioned the thinking behind such decisions. But the fatal moment arrived when the Bush administration made the unilateral decision to sideline the one person who could have pulled the country together after 30 years in exile, King Zahir Shah. 

One commentator, William Pfaff, wrote: “Washington manipulated the Loya Jirga (national assembly of tribal leaders) called in June 2002, so as to put Karzai in office. This was despite the will of the majority of the assembly to bring back the royal family, and the ex-king, as nonpartisan and traditionally legitimate influences in the country’s affairs.”

As a gauge of legitimacy for an escalating American presence, the Afghan elections meant a great deal to Washington. The U.S. must now scramble to deal with a disintegrating political system in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, a worsening security situation and an increasing lack of credibility.

On Sept. 9, the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, outright rejected Af-Pak, stating: “Afghanistan and Pakistan are distinctly different countries that cannot be lumped together.”

In Afghanistan, a pre-election poll showed that at least 50 percent of Afghans don’t want Americans fighting their war either and want them to go home. In the U.S., polls indicate that 58 percent of adult Americans now say the war is not worth fighting.

Today, Washington faces up to an election process of its own making. But if the U.S. is trying to build a viable Afghan government by ignoring a major progressive theme in Afghan politics for over a century, it will be denying itself the last chance for success.

(Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are the authors of Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story, available from City Lights Books.)