Afghanistan should, perhaps, be called the "graveyard of expectations." Every time the shrewd analyst thinks he knows what is going to happen, the picture shifts. The country's presidential election, scheduled for August 20, is no exception.
Just a few weeks ago, pundits were nodding sagely at the political astuteness of the incumbent, Hamid Karzai. He has spent the past year assiduously courting and bullying the tribal leaders and strongmen who control the country, promising them jobs, perquisites, forgiveness of past sins, even the odd province or two. The process might have been a bit unsavory, but international election experts were saying they expected a "fair enough" referendum on Karzai's tenure -- in which, both inside Afghanistan and abroad, the president's re-election was thought to be a sure thing.
Who is likely to win -- and why?
Now, with just two weeks to go before the ballot, what had been a yawn of a race is suddenly a pulse-pumping sprint for the finish, with no clear winner in sight. What rocked Karzai's formerly sturdy campaign boat? To understand the exciting and confusing contest, the careful observer should pay attention to a trio of contenders and at least two governments -- and be prepared for the unexpected.
A number of factors have contributed to the upset. First, there has been the surprisingly strong showing of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister. He has marshaled his old Northern Alliance connections into an effective campaign team. Their tactics seem not to differ significantly from the bullying and buying-off favored by his chief rival. But widespread anger and disappointment with the current regime in Kabul may well propel Abdullah into a strong second-place showing, robbing Karzai of what was thought to be an easy first-round win. (To win the presidency, a candidate must garner more than 50 percent of the vote. If none of the 37 remaining candidates wins this majority, the top two go to a runoff election in early October.)
The second wild card in the deck has been the attitude of the United States. It is almost a cliché among Afghans that the next president will be chosen in Washington -- after all, Karzai was hand-picked to head the Interim Government in 2001 by then-U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is Afghan-born.
Although U.S. officials have stated publicly and repeatedly that they will neither support nor oppose any candidate, the conspiracy-happy Afghans have been watching for subtle signs like soothsayers examining chicken entrails. Rumors from diplomatic insiders have pointed strongly to a move away from Karzai in the Obama administration, with U.S. heavyweights cozying up to his opposition. Karzai has been isolated: Diplomats hold direct talks with regional representatives, by-passing the authority of the central government and undercutting the president. Plus, those in the know say there is a plan afoot to form a coalition of leading candidates to oppose the incumbent.