Sat, Jul 11, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Karzai re-election will trigger backlash: US officer

DISILLUSIONMENT Colonel David Haight said that while the Afghan president was unlikely to lose despite plummeting support, public anger over corruption was rising

THE GUARDIAN , LOGAR, AFGHANISTAN

The expected victory of Hamid Karzai in next month’s presidential election in Afghanistan will trigger a violent backlash from ordinary Afghans, a senior US commander in the country warned.

Although the Taliban have threatened to disrupt the polling day, Colonel David Haight, who is in charge of pacifying two strategically vital provinces on the southern doorstep of the capital, Kabul, says he is far more concerned about the aftermath of the election.

“I think the people down here are disgruntled with the government because their feeling is, look, ‘I’m just right to the south, I’m frigging 40 miles away and you couldn’t help me?” he said.

“I think that apathy is going to turn into some anger when the administration doesn’t change, and I don’t think anyone believes that Karzai is going to lose. There is going to be frustration from people who realize there is not going to be a change,” Haight told this reporter on a recent embed with the US army. “The bottom line is they are going to be thinking: ‘Four more years of this crap?’”

An opinion poll last month suggested that support for Karzai has slumped since he became Afghanistan’s first democratically elected leader, but most western diplomats still believe he will easily win, possibly in the first round.

A poll of 3,200 Afghans carried out by the International Republican Institute said Karzai could expect to receive 33 percent of the vote — well below the 50 percent needed to win in the first round of the election on Aug. 20. In the last election, in 2004, Karzai won 54 percent. But support for his opponents is considerably lower, and the likelihood remains that he will win comfortably.

Widely blamed for much of the corruption in modern Afghanistan, Karzai has nonetheless succeeded in gaining the support of most of the country’s most important ethnic and tribal power-brokers — including a number of unsavory characters accused of human rights violations.

The only doubt is whether the tribal warlords can deliver the necessary votes to him, or whether widespread disillusion with the corrupt state of the regime will lead voters to defy tribal and clan lines and back one of the opposition candidates.

There are also concerns about the independence of the election commission, which opponents accuse Karzai of stacking with loyalists.

Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and one of the two leading opposition candidates, said: “In 2001 the Afghan people expected state-building and received bad governance and corruption. As a result of the failure of this government and the international community, they are demonstrating again the desire for legitimate and accountable state institutions.”

Haight commands the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division in Logar and neighboring Wardak. He and his men were diverted from a scheduled tour in Iraq, allowing the number of US troops in the two provinces to soar from 300 to 3,000.

The huge increase in numbers had an immediate impact, allowing the US to move beyond killing the odd Taliban to clearing whole areas of insurgents.

But the insurgency on the doorstep of Kabul has created panic among many elite Afghans who fear that even with international support the government will not prove capable of stopping a movement that last year publicly announced it’s ambition to “encircle” Kabul.

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