The Karzai Conundrum | War Making You Poor?

The Karzai Conundrum—”I want to thank the American people for their sacrifice,” Dr. Abdullah Abdullah said. Abdullah might have won the 2009 presidential election in Afghanistan, which was stolen through massive ballot fraud that made Hamid Karzai president. An ophthalmologist who began his political career in the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s, Abdullah now leads an Afghan opposition party. He met with a small group of reporters at the National Press Club in Washington the last week in May.

Three days before Abdullah spoke, American fatalities in Afghanistan reached 1,000. That number is about to spike, as 30,000 American troops move into Kandahar, the southern Afghan province that is a Taliban stronghold. This month, the Afghan war becomes the longest in U.S. history—at 105 months—surpassing the Vietnam War. The total cost of the war exceeds $300 billion, with another $100 billion to be spent before the end of 2010. And 52 percent of Americans now say the war is not worth its cost.

What Abdullah identified as one of his greatest fears, that international support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan will begin to fade, is already happening with the U.S. public. He also said he has grave misgivings about the leadership of Hamid Karzai’s government. “Look what [civic leaders] told him in Marja last month,” Abdullah said. “They told him, ‘We support the Taliban compared to your corrupt officials.’ ”

Can Karzai succeed? Not according to Peter Galbraith, who has a dim view of U.S. prospects in Afghanistan. Galbraith resigned from the U.N. mission overseeing last year’s elections in protest over the fraud by which Karzai became president. Galbraith spoke at an Economists for Peace & Security forum in Washington. He considers Karzai damaged goods, in part because of the electoral fraud in which the United States invested $200 million to ensure ballot security, and because Karzai presides over one of the world’s most corrupt governments.

“Afghanistan is 179 out of 180 on Transparency International’s index of perception of corruption,” Galbraith said, “ahead of Somalia, which has no government at all. Karzai has been in office for eight years. Why is the next five years going to be any different?”

According to Galbraith, the U.S. is engaged in a counterinsurgency program which requires a credible partner, and Karzai lacks credibility: “He is known as the mayor of Kabul,” Galbraith said. “His authority doesn’t extend significantly beyond the capital.”

As the U.S. prepares for the largest offensive of the Afghan war, Karzai is preparing to steal another election. In February he issued a decree giving him the authority to appoint all five commissioners on the Election Complaint Commission (EEC), the closest thing to an independent election monitor that exists in Afghanistan. Karzai also stripped the commission of its authority to initiate reviews of questionable ballots. The decree gives Karzai near absolute control over the outcome of the September parliamentary elections.

Abdullah said Karzai’s decree should not be allowed to stand. “Changes will have to be made,” Abdullah said, “in particular with the ECC.”

Change, in fact, can only come from Washington. Galbraith explained how. “Afghanistan cannot hold an election unless the United States pays for it,” Galbraith said. “We should insist as a condition of funding those elections that the commission have no appointee by Karzai. And restore its authority to initiate its own review of suspect ballots.”

War Making You Poor?—It might not be the “landmark legislation” that Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL) claims it is. Yet “The War Is Making You Poor Act” that Grayson introduced deserves a better hearing than it will get. The bill limits the amount of funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by keeping spending for them within the annual military appropriation (currently $680 billion, or more than 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product). By eliminating supplemental budgets for the wars, Grayson’s bill is able to eliminate income tax on the first $35,000 in individual income ($70,000 for married couples) and still cut the federal deficit by $15.9 billion—numbers verified by the bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

Grayson, an anti-war progressive, is an anomaly in many ways. On the day he introduced the bill, I saw him on the steps of the Capitol, questioning a protester holding a sign criticizing Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. It was a rare moment: a member of Congress stopping to ask a protester about the thinking behind the sign he was holding.