Times Online, January 31, 2009


A picture of misery: how corruption and failure destroyed the hope of democracy

Afghans no longer trust their leader and believe the forthcoming election will be decided by the White House

By Tom Coghlan

Policemen
Security remains an issue for Afghan voters but frustration with endemic corruption is seen as a greater stumbling block for President Karzai's hopes for victory in elections set for August. Photo: Times Online

There are few people in a better position than Mr Salim to gauge the popularity of Afghanistan’s political elite. His family has made a steady living for more than 40 years selling portraits of politicians from a small shop-front in one of Kabul’s better districts. Today he has a problem.

“Since 2002 every week we sold five or six portraits of Karzai,” says Mr Salim. “But about one year ago it just stopped. I can only remember selling one picture of Karzai these past 12 months.”

Piles of framed photographs of the benevolent-looking Afghan President gather dust in the back area of the shop. In a country where portraits of public figures are a popular home decoration, even portraits of the feared Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum are selling better than Mr Karzai, says a rueful Mr Salim.

On the streets of Kabul any mention of Mr Karzai – who will stand for reelection on August 20 after the poll was put back from May – is now likely to produce a scowl. “The main problem that we have is Karzai,” said Mohammad Anif, who makes $6 (£4.20) a day selling fruit juice at a roadside café in Kabul. “I voted for him last time and it was a big mistake. No one thinks well of him. He is a good man only for his own family.”

The President is blamed for a quartet of woes that blight the lives of ordinary people in one of the world’s poorest countries: insecurity, chronic unemployment, crippling food prices and endemic corruption. While two years ago public criticism in Kabul was more broadly aimed, and often included the perceived failure of the international community to deliver money and change, it now appears to be focused sharply on Mr Karzai.

This year Afghanistan was placed 176th out of 180 countries on the Transparency International index of corruption. Three years ago it was 117th.
...US government officials have cited the President’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, as a key figure in the country’s $3.4 billion drugs economy.
...
Many Afghans approached by The Times believe that the outcome of the forthcoming elections will be decided in the White House rather than in the ballot boxes.
Times Online, Jan. 31, 2009

“We can’t blame foreigners,” Abdul Samee, a businessman, said. “We hear on the radio that the money is coming from abroad but the problem is that the Government are not spending it on the people. Karzai looks a nice man but he works for himself.”

Mr Samee stood on the edge of Sherpur, a district of Kabul that has become a notorious symbol of the corruption with which the Karzai Administration is associated. The area was originally government-owned until it was parcelled out to chronies at well below market prices after 2001. Today it is lined with the gaudy marble and tinted-glass palaces of government workers whose official salaries are often as little as a few hundred dollars a month.

Even Mr Karzai acknowledged the scale of the problem in November when he told a conference in Kabul: “All the politicians in this country have acquired everything – money, lots of money. God knows, it is beyond the limit. The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen.”

This year Afghanistan was placed 176th out of 180 countries on the Transparency International index of corruption. Three years ago it was 117th. “I trusted Karzai and I voted for him,” said Mohammad Jafar, 43, a security guard with the weary demeanour of a man who has spent most of his life fighting wars. “Now Karzai is the corruption man. He says he is against narcotics but his own brother is a drugs trafficker.”

US government officials have cited the President’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, as a key figure in the country’s $3.4 billion drugs economy.

Mr Jafar said that he had lost faith in the forthcoming election making any significant change to the situation. “Democracy is just a symbolic name and it means nothing. Behind the curtain there are foreign hands working,” he said.

Many Afghans approached by The Times believe that the outcome of the forthcoming elections will be decided in the White House rather than in the ballot boxes. “There is no need to register ourselves to vote for the coming election because America has selected the coming president already and the whole process is just symbolic,” Sayed Jan, a university professor, said.

There remains no clear challenger to the President, although a number of former ministers, including Ali Jalali and Ashraf Ghani, the Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, the powerful provincial governor Gul Agha Sherzai and even the former Bush Government’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, are believed to be in the running.

An official working on the country’s election told The Times: “We find in many postconflict countries there are very high levels of expectation ahead of the first round of elections and by the time of the second cycle there is a huge degree of scepticism.”

Private polling conducted by the US Government to gauge Mr Karzai’s chances in the forthcoming elections has found support levels in the President’s heartlands of the Afghan south to be as bleak as that on the streets of Kabul. Only 18 per cent of Kandaharis said that they would vote for him.

However, recent polling of Afghans has found that few expected to make their voting decision themselves.

Instead, 65 per cent of those polled by the Asia Foundation in October last year said that they would follow the ruling of local leaders and tribal elders. It will make the election far less easy to call than popular opinion might suggest. Western officials have said that the Afghan President has spent months negotiating with local power-brokers and positioning loyalists to bring in the Karzai vote. The President’s spokesman denied that there was any plan eitherto buy votes or to rig the coming election. “Even the suggestion that there is any ulterior motive in the appointment of government officials is absolutely absurd,” Hamayun Hamidzada said.

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