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'We Don't Have Any Alternative to Karzai'
Afghans' Low Expectations Ensure Incumbent Is Favorite in Presidential Race, Despite Poor Record

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

BATI KOT, Afghanistan, Aug. 18 -- From the gravel lot where he repairs cars, Babarak Shinwari can see the spot where the suicide bomber killed three of his cousins last year. At his home nearby, where his four children live without electricity, he says he prays to God for a president who can bring peace and security.

But on Thursday, Shinwari plans to vote the same way he did five years ago: for Hamid Karzai.

The fact that Karzai remains the favorite to win Thursday's election, despite his government's poor record on security and the economy over nearly eight years in power, says much about the mind-set of Afghans as they prepare to go to the polls. In interviews with more than a dozen residents Tuesday near the eastern city of Jalalabad, heavily populated by Karzai's fellow Pashtuns, all said they planned to vote for the incumbent, even though many were critical of his performance.

That paradox reflects Afghans' deep suspicion of anyone promising change. In recent decades, Afghans have lived through periods of horrific violence and destruction, with each successive regime bringing greater deprivation than the last. Many Afghans reason that although Karzai's government has been disappointing, it could always be worse.

"We don't have any alternative to Karzai," Shinwari said. "We are afraid of what the other candidates might do."

Indeed, low expectations may be Karzai's greatest ally.

"During the Taliban, we had dirt roads. There were few vehicles. Women couldn't go outside. There were no televisions, no mobile phones, no hotels, and now we have all those things," said Jalil Jan, 30, who owns two gas stations near Jalalabad. "It is true that violence has increased, and the Taliban is stronger, but Americans can't even stop the Taliban -- how is Karzai expected to? He's trying his best."

Many Afghans also have misgivings about Karzai's most prominent opponent, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik whose ethnicity makes him unacceptable to a large number of Pashtuns, the nation's dominant ethnic group. Abdullah has campaigned on his history of involvement with the armed resistance, first to Soviet occupation in the 1980s and then to Taliban rule in the 1990s. Although the message resonates with some voters, it alienates others who do not want to revisit such violent periods.

There are more than 30 other candidates, but none besides Karzai has a wide following. A poll by the International Republican Institute released last week found that 44 percent of Afghans plan to vote for Karzai, compared with 26 percent for Abdullah. The third leading candidate, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, trailed well behind.

"People still support [Karzai] because despite the high number of contenders, they don't see a real alternative," said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a nonprofit research group. Abdullah and Ghani "were part of Karzai's policies, so they're also responsible for the failures linked to them," Ruttig said.

Before Karzai came to power, Khaiyal Wali, now 27, earned about $2,000 a year growing poppies for the drug trade. During Karzai's tenure, local elders forced him to stop, and now he earns about one-fifth as much cleaning fuel tanks. The U.S.-financed alternative agricultural development programs he had heard about brought him nothing, he said: "That was just on TV."

But he still supports Karzai, if for cynical reasons. Corruption is endemic to politicians, he said, and Karzai and his cronies have had years to enrich themselves.

"The empty bags he brought with him have already been filled. It will take a long time for new people to fill their bags of money," Wali said. "It's impossible for the government to stop corruption. It is everywhere."

Afzal Khan, an elderly farmer who was tending his 17 cows as they grazed on government pastureland, said he is happy with Karzai primarily because he has been left alone. When the Taliban ruled the country, Khan said, the regime's enforcers would beat him with sticks for bringing his cows to government land.

"In every government we were farmers. Only during the Taliban period were they giving us a hard time. The Taliban have beaten me so many times in the legs I still feel the pain," he said. "I feel so secure and peaceful with this government."

Others pointed to improvements in local infrastructure and services: new paved roads, schools and clinics. They blamed the rising Taliban violence primarily on U.S. troops, not on Karzai.

"Americans make the security situation worse because they bomb the wrong houses," said Abdul Ahad, a 22-year-old shopkeeper from a village on the outskirts of Jalalabad. "We are voting for Karzai and, God willing, he will be successful. He has promised that he will remove all these foreign forces."

Karzai has also relied heavily on tribal elders, local officials and regional commanders, such as the Uzbek militia leader Abdurrashid Dostum, to generate votes for him. Ruttig said there is anecdotal evidence of governors offering services to citizens groups, provided they support Karzai. Under the law, governors are not allowed to use public resources on behalf of any candidate. Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission last week imposed a $1,500 fine on Karzai's second running mate, Karim Khalili, currently a vice president, for improperly using Defense Ministry helicopters for campaign events.

Karzai "effectively controls the administrative and provincial system, especially on the district level," Ruttig said. "Then you get the tendency, of course, toward the winner. If the trend is set, the impetus is there. Then more and more people flock to the guy perceived to be the winner."

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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