Christian Parenti in Afghanistan: Saturday’s Elections Were A “Farce”

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We go to Afghanistan to speak with The Nation’s correspondent covering Saturday’s election where all 15 of incumbent Hamid Karzai’s opponents announced they were boycotting the election because of voting problems. [includes rush transcript]

Ballots from Afghanistan’s first direct presidential election poured into collection centers across the country today.

Several opponents of President Hamid Karzai, including his chief rival Yunis Qanui, have abandoned their boycott of the poll over allegations of fraud, and irregularities.

On Saturday, 15 of Karzai’s challengers announced a boycott, saying a system to prevent multiple voting had failed. The indelible ink used to mark voters” fingers after casting their ballots could easily be wiped out in some cases, meaning that illegal multiple voting was possible.

The Afghan-U.N. Joint Electoral Management Body gave candidates until the end of the day Monday to lodge complaints formally, and is setting up a panel to investigate.

The full official count of the vote is likely to take about three weeks, but an exit poll conducted by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, a GOP-associated think tank, showed U.S.-backed President Karzai heading for a landslide win. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been an influential behind-the-scenes dealmaker on Karzai”s behalf.

  • Christian Parenti,  correspondent for the Nation Magazine and author of the forthcoming book The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq. He joins us on the phone from Mazar-i-Sharif.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Christian Parenti. He’s a correspondent for The Nation magazine, author of the forthcoming book, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq. He joins us now from Mazar-i-Sharif, in Afghanistan. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Christian.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Thank you for having me on, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what happened this weekend?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Basically, the election was marked by massive fraud and intimidation, as well as lots of technical errors. The ink, as you said, was running off peoples’ hands. Maybe you might hear the prayer call behind me; sorry about that. There was — many polling places had no pens, they ran out of ballots, some polls closed and reopened, lots and lots of people had multiple voting cards, including myself. One of the parties gave me two valid voting cards that I could add my photograph to and I could have voted if I wanted to. So then there was this protest, and a bunch of us journalists went up to the house of one of the candidates, Satar Sirat, and he held this meeting. They came out and 14 of their candidates said that they were going to boycott the election. They also said they would not take positions in Karzai’s government, and as you mentioned, that’s sort of falling apart. What’s going on beneath the surface is the fact that in the interests of avoiding war and creating peace, there’s been all sorts of back-room deals and warlords have been brought into the Karzai camp. But when you come to a place like Mazar-i-Sharif, where I’ve been for the last two days, you see that on the ground, life is still marked by really intense intimidation and exploitation. I spent the day out in fields as far as the eye can see of marijuana, it’s the hashish season up here, not the poppy season. So the farmers are about to bring in the marijuana, the hashish. And they complain, once one gets their confidence, very openly about intimidation by local commanders who are all allied to and loyal to a guy named Mohammed Atta, who is the main rival of Rashid Dostam up here. Now Mohammed Atta is now loyal to the central government, Hamid Karzai. So regardless of who wins the this fraudulent vote, all sides were committing fraud. And the protests by many of these people, of these other candidates, was quite disingenuous, because a lot of them are pretty corrupt, opportunistic people. The fact of the matter is that what’s happening is the solidification and legitimation of a government that is going to be heavily populated by really, really brutal, cruel criminals, most of whom are part of the mujahedin, which was a force that was created by the Pakistani intelligence and the U.S. in the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union and the Afghan communists. And these are the people, once again, running Afghanistan. And the way they run Afghanistan is to exploit and steal from the common people. And you literally have, land theft is rife. I interviewed a guy today who lost two motorcycles. It was him and a friend were driving to their crop and one of the local commanders’ men just took their motorcycles. They went to the governor, Mohammed Atta, who has just been appointed governor by Karzai, and Mohammed Atta essentially told him to go away. In the same area someone talked about how a woman, a young girl, had several weeks ago been taken by one of the these commanders and raped and beaten for several days, and then released, and she fled the country. So underneath the machinations about the election, that’s what life in Afghanistan is like. And the U.S. is cooperating with these people, the mujahedin leaders, who have been reincarnated as the, quote-unquote, “Northern Alliance,” but they’re really just a bunch of feudal thugs who is use Kalashnikovs and R.P.G.’s instead of swords and horses.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Christian Parenti in Afghanistan. You’re in the area where Jamie Doran did a film called Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death about the killings of perhaps up to thousands of Afghan prisoners. That was in this documentary that we aired. Carried out by General Dostam’s forces, who also ran for president. And the allegation was working with U.S. Special Forces. Can you talk about that at all?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, you know, I mean that, I can’t say much about that. That’s, that’s sort of old news at this point. What concerns people now is the continuing struggle between Rashid Dostam and Mohammed Atta, who are the two big warlords here, and there’s a series of personalities beneath them. One of them controls core number 7, and one of them controls core number 8, in what are called the Afghan Military Forces, which are different from the new Afghan Army, which is being trained by the U.S. So what you have here are these private armies that are refusing to demobilize. There has been some demobilization, which is getting, I imagine, press internationally. But in reality you have a standoff between these two guys, Mohammed Atta and Rashid Dostam, both of whom are involved in the drug trade, both of whom are seizing land, both of whom tax, mercilessly, the extremely poor people of this region, and both of whom are jockeying for positions in the Karzai regime. And I’ll bet that Mohammed Atta is governor of a province and I’m sure that Rashid Dostam will be bought off or rewarded, somehow, with some sort of position. So in terms of these sorts of war crimes you’re describing, there is for the most part in Afghanistan, zero discussion of this. The idea of bringing someone like Rashid Dostam to justice is an absolute fantasy that’s not even discussed here. And sadly, the average Afghan is so, they’re so tired of war and so worn down by poverty, that all they want is peace. And very few people are upset about the massive fraud. They just assume that Karzai, that it was prearranged by the U.S. that Karzai would be president, and that’s the way it’s going to be. And all they want is for there to be peace and for there to be development. The fact of the matter is, there very likely won’t be development. There may be some sort of peace with low-level skirmishing going on between militias and exploitation and all of that. But there certainly won’t be any development, and certainly won’t be any development of any just sort, if the government, which the U.S. is engineering, is populated by the former mujahedin commanders. And that’s almost definitely what’s going to happen. And that’s really in a way, not surprising, but really tragic, nonetheless.

AMY GOODMAN: We have those reports that Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, met with Dostam, trying to put pressure for them to remove the boycott. Khalilzad. The allegations go according to some of those candidates, ones, was meeting with them to put pressure on them to pull out before the presidential election.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, yeah, he definitely met with people before the presidential election. And a few, two parties did pull out. He was actually going to come to the meeting where 14 of the candidates, or at least many of the deputies, were there in Kabul, where a bunch of us journalists were. He was on his way there, but then I think once a bunch of press showed up, he decided that that might look a bit poor for the U.S. Ambassador to come and knock heads together and try and cool people down. But I think that this boycott is probably going to fall apart as people, as these presidential candidates get their, their rewards, their positions. And the other interesting thing that happened on election day, personally speaking, was I managed to get into an invitation-only press conference with Karzai. And to see Karzai in action. And Karzai was, acted rather unhinged almost, when confronted with well-documented allegations that there was intimidation being committed by his campaigners. For example in the province of Khost, the local commanders told village elders that they had to vote Karzai or their houses would be burned down and what not. And in a province in the central highlands where I was, a local commander told the village elders that they should vote Karzai or they should not expect any protection from him. Human Rights Watch documented these things. So when I confronted Karzai with these things, he grew visibly irritated, and got extremely angry. He’s actually quite unprofessional. And you know, rarely gets out of the palace. And it was a depressing spectacle to see him in action in a moment of stress. He didn’t even, he, he’s not, he presented a statesman-like in the U.S. press. But in action he’s kind of like unhinged and inappropriate and he can’t — he wasn’t even admitting that there were technical errors with the voting. And this is when you know, there’s ballots are running out, there aren’t pens, people are voting multiple times. People are photographing, journalists are photographing Afghans with three and four I.D. Cards. Journalists are driving around with their drivers filming them vote three, four, and five times. And he absolutely denied all of it. Which is to say, he lied. You know, he told bold-faced lies to the international press.

AMY GOODMAN: Christian Parenti —

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Not surprising for a president to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Christian, thank you very much for being with us. Christian Parenti, reporting to us from Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan. This is Democracy Now!

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