In May 2003, Taliban guerrillas were ripping in south and southeast Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was alive and kicking along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and President Hamid Karzai could barely enforce his writ outside of Kabul.

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flew to Kabul and declared “victory.” It was a bluff. Just like it was in Iraq.

In October 2004, Taliban guerrillas are still ripping in the south and southeast, al-Qaeda, albeit with reduced numbers, is present along the border, and Karzai is still confined to Kabul – he even had to abort an election rally in Gardez for fear of attack, despite massive US security backup. Yet Karzai is already the virtual winner of Saturday’s presidential elections.

US President George W. Bush told the United Nations General Assembly last month that “the Afghan people are on the path to democracy and freedom.” It was a bluff. Just like it was in Iraq.

The popularity contest

August Hanning, chief of German intelligence, said this Thursday in Berlin that Osama bin Laden is alive and hiding on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. European counter-terrorism experts in Brussels tell Asia Times Online that bin Laden is almost certainly inside Afghan territory, because of extremely intense US surveillance of the Pakistani tribal areas.

The United States bombed Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. Al-Qaeda leaders are still in Afghanistan. The Taliban are a widespread guerrilla operation active in approximately 40% of the country. There’s hardly any security and stability, not to mention economic prosperity (apart from some real-estate speculation in Kabul) or the rule of law. Pledged reconstruction funds (US$4.5 billion) are not flowing in – only $700 million so far.

So much for nation-building. Afghanistan, in a nutshell, remains a collection of warlords in search of their best cut of the opium economy ($2.3 billion in 2003, an expected 100% increase in 2004).

The 9,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops “stabilizing” the country hardly venture outside of Kabul – so nothing is “stabilized”: more Afghan officials and aid workers died this year than in 2002 and 2003. Doctors Without Borders pulled out – blaming the Bush administration. As for the 18,000 US troops (now with another 1,000 providing “election security”), they are helpless to prevent a daily barrage of Taliban attacks and are obviously incapable of “smoking out” bin Laden from his fabled cave.

The Bush administration’s mistakes in Afghanistan were repeated in Iraq: the carelessness in establishing a minimum of security, and then the reluctance to turn over political control to a legitimate government. Karzai’s “popularity” is attested by the plethora of DynCorp bodyguards protecting him from repeated death threats and assassination attempts – or from staging an election rally.

The Taliban may no longer be in power, imposing their dreadful edicts. Girls may be back to school (although women continue to be harassed). The Kabul-Kandahar road may have been repaved (but that’s about it). Heroic aid workers may be working with their Afghan colleagues (at maximum risk). But the US could have done so much better to help Afghanistan. It didn’t. For a stark reason: from the Pentagon’s point of view, Afghanistan has lost, again, its strategic importance.

The Masoud factor

This is quite an election (already delayed twice). Of the 10.5 million registered voters (many registered at least twice), a substantial number are illiterate, have never seen a TV in their lives, and don’t even know most of the 16 candidates. Excitement at tasting democracy is palpable in many quarters. There may be a widespread feeling that the US invasion has brought a measure of peace. But definitely not security: in the Pashtun south, for instance, posters from warlord and now guerrilla leader on America’s most wanted list Gulbuddin Hekmatyar warn anyone not even to think about voting. Panjshiris in Kabul tell Asia Times Online even people in the Panjshir Valley are complaining that the Taliban and the Americans are the same.

Ahmad Shah Masoud, the “Lion of the Panjshir,” is still the key to the Afghan equation. Masoud was assassinated on September 9, 2001, as a “gift” from al-Qaeda to Taliban supremo Mullah Omar, and as the go-ahead sign for September 11. Masoud died as a true mujahideen – fighting the Taliban after fighting the Soviets and other warlords. The US profited handsomely: Masoud was calibrating his transition from warrior to statesman, and in normal circumstances, in a presidential election, no one could possibly match his credentials as a true Afghan nationalist leader. With Masoud alive there would be no US-manipulated Karzai.

No wonder, then, that Masoud is the political weapon of choice of all the presidential candidates. Karzai profited from Masoud’s cult status by picking one of Masoud’s brothers, Ahmad Zia, as his running mate. Ahmad Zia escaped an assassination attempt this week. Karzai hopes that Ahmad Zia may secure him essential votes in the Panjshir Valley against his main rival in the race, former education minister Yunus Qanooni.

But Qanooni has even better reasons to play Masoud because he was a prominent member of the Northern Alliance (Masoud is the star of his election posters). Qanooni runs for a Tajik party, Nahzat-e-Melli, whose head is another Masoud brother, Ahmad Wali. The Tajik creme de la creme of the Northern Alliance is backing Qanooni: former defense minister and vice president Mohammad Fahim (spurned by Karzai) and former foreign minister and public face of the Northern Alliance in 2001, Abdullah Abdullah.

This is the clique Afghans call “the Panjshiris” – the political heirs to Masoud. And military heirs as well: Fahim controls an armed-to-the-teeth 20,000 private militia. Qanooni’s party is against disarming and demobilizing militias. Karzai may have bagged a Masoud, but in the process may have lost most of the Tajik vote because he got rid of powerful “Marshal” Fahim.

There’s no tradition of strong central government in Afghanistan. Karzai may have stripped ultra-powerful Ismail Khan from his post as governor of the eastern province of Herat, but he had to admit this week on the British Broadcasting Corp that, if elected, he may bring Ismail Khan back to government. Mohammed Mohaqiq, the Shi’ite Hazara candidate, is a warlord. Not to mention sinister Uzbek General Abdel Rashid Dostum – who massacred hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001. According to a Human Rights Watch report, warlords are dictating the regional vote. Any average Afghan, from any ethnic group, says he/she will vote for whomever their tribal leader indicates: which means they will vote for their former mujahideen-turned-warlord leader.

And then there’s former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who wields enormous power in the shadows and is also the father-in-law of Ahmad Zia Masoud. Because in large part of his family ties, Rabbani now supports Karzai. Karzai may be a Pashtun, but his government, so far, has been dominated by the Tajiks of the former Northern Alliance. Pashtuns may vote en masse for Karzai because they see one of them occupying the presidential chair. But they want more power in the cabinet. To complicate matters, the non-voting Taliban are also Pashtun. But what they see in Karzai is just a US puppet.

Candidate Abdul Satar Sirat has repeatedly denounced the absence of security: for him, there was no possible campaign trail. Sirat supported former Afghan king Zahir Shah, and was supposed to be the leader of the interim government after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. But in the 2001 Bonn conference the Americans imposed “their” man, former Unocal consultant Karzai.

The Taliban are very active in the southeast – in the provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost, which is the Afghan territory directly opposite to North and South Waziristan tribal agencies in Pakistan, where the US and the Pakistani army are trying to smoke out al-Qaeda. As for the south – the provinces of Uruzgan, Zabol, Helmand and Kandahar – this is Taliban land.

Karzai may not be restricted to Kabul because he is making all sorts of deals with the warlords, with US backing: a UN source in Kabul confirmed to Asia Times Online that oilman Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, has personally “encouraged” several warlords to clear the way for Karzai. Deal-making of the suitcase-full-of-dollars kind is what Washington used to win the Afghan war in 2001 (usually the deals were with the wrong warlords, as in Tora Bora).

Speaking of Tora Bora … Democratic US Senator John Kerry has repeatedly charged that the Bush administration’s tactic of outsourcing the battle of Tora Bora to locals, in December 2001, is the main reason bin Laden was not captured. Bush did not even try to answer the charge, either during the first presidential debate or in the campaign trail. This correspondent was in Tora Bora ( Taking a spin in Tora Bora , December 7, 2001). The battle was indeed outsourced, for the benefit of warlord Hazrat Ali. The B-52s were bombing the wrong mountains. And bin Laden was long gone, at least by four days, when the bombings intensified. Retired General Tommy Franks, then responsible for the Afghan war, still insists “he didn’t know” whether bin Laden was in Tora Bora.

The main theme of this election won’t be reported: it’s called voter intimidation. Both the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe even said they could not monitor the election for fear they would be constrained to denounce it as not being free and fair. In the end, they sent some 125 monitors – but they are confined to Kabul – for fear of Taliban attacks. In the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, “security” in the polls will be provided by local militias controlled by – who else – regional warlords, who themselves will be controlling voter intimidation.

Bush needs Afghanistan as a “success” for only one reason: his own reelection campaign. In the real world, what will happen is that Dostum gets the Uzbek vote, Mohaqiq the Hazara vote and Qanooni the Tajik vote. Karzai will be their hostage – again. As for Taliban leader Mullah Omar, he is also voting. With guns.