THE news of Hamid Karzai’s official re-election as president of Afghanistan hit the remote NATO base at Tirin Kowt in Uruzgan province like a pin falling on a bowl of Marshmallow Fluff.
It was practically a non-event.
Thirty hours after the official decision that a second round of voting would not take place, enabling a Karzai victory, many of the 3,000-plus NATO soldiers here hadn’t even heard about it.
It’s not that there was a news black-out, but more that the NATO military mission moves on a day-to-day logic and momentum set by its commanders. The foreign soldiers know their orders and daily duties, and the big picture doesn’t seem to be a pressing concern, at least not as much as the date they rotate home.
More importantly, it was generally agreed that ethnic Pashtun Karzai would win a runoff with ethnic Tajik Abdullah Abdullah hands down, which is part of the reason the runner-up from August 21’s terribly flawed elections probably decided to pull out of the second round.
The Afghan interpreters and psy-ops guys living in my barracks followed the news closely. They all expressed relief that Karzai was re-elected, and that the process of development and dealing with insurgents could move forward.
Provincial leadership was also pleased.
On November 4, my American embed hosts with Task Force Fury, 4th Brigade, 82nd Airborne invited me to attend a regular meeting they call “The Big 4-plus-2”.
It used to be called “The Big 6” meeting, but the Americans say they pushed for a change in name and structure as a way of giving the Afghans ownership of the process.
Uruzgan Governor Asadullah Hamdan now chairs the meeting, attended by the Afghan National Army (ANA) provincial commander General Abdul Hamid, Afghan National Police (ANP) provincial commander General Juma Gul Hemat, and Afghan provincial National Directorate of Security (NDS) commander General Zacharia Haziz. Various aides of all stripes sat in chairs in back of the main table.
NATO provincial commander Dutch Brigadier General Marc van Uhm and his civilian off-sider Michel Rittenhauer, from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, represent the coalition forces.
Rittenhauer’s presence reflects a unique aspect of the Dutch deployment in Afghanistan, whereby most decisions made by the Dutch Battle Group reflect a combined military and civilian input.
Governor Hamdan started off the meeting: “In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate. Our shoulders are empty from a heavy load,” he said. “Although we have planes, soldiers, etc, we were feeling heavy pressure from the elections.”
“The cancellation of the elections and the selection of Karzai, we accept it. We don’t have the authority to say if it is legal or not legal on that matter because we are working for the government. But for the people there is freedom to talk and to give opinions on those matters. Two journalists are already in Uruzgan. We sent them to Deh Rawood and Chura, and they will go back to Kabul and make a report. They met with the intelligence commander of the brigade and met with civilians. But I know the people are already happy with this process.”
The other three Afghan commanders, invoking the name of Allah, gave similarly positive reports. The only small bit of discord was when the NDS commander, Zacharia, noted that people shouldn’t refer to insurgents as Taliban.
“So now I will say we are fighting against people who are against the government, not Taliban, because the ‘taliban’ are students of Islam,” General Zacharia said. “We are fighting an enemy who are insurgents. We have to finish, kill or arrest them. Those who are not insurgents, we have to make them happy with this government.”
There was an additional bit of back and forth between the Dutch and the electoral commission representative present over whether the elections for district chiefs were now official, too. It was concluded that the supreme court would have to make a pronouncement on that score.
After more extended pleasantries, with claims that about 90 percent of Afghans were happy with the election results, as well as requests by the Afghans for more civic action projects and ammunition from NATO, the governor said: “When I was in school, after one hour there was a 10-minute break, so let’s have a break.”
We all moved outside to the parking lot of the Afghan operations command center that abuts the NATO base. The OCC’s three buildings, generator, air conditioners, communications dishes, portable toilets, armored Humvees painted Afghan army green, in fact almost everything in the compound had been donated by NATO. Perhaps the wooden tables were an in-kind donation from the Afghan side.
After a bit of chit-chat and smokes, the meeting reconvened. I was told I couldn’t attend, as they were going to discuss future joint operations, no doubt the more interesting items on the agenda.