|Critics claim Karzai wants to secure his position as president for life in the name of stability [EPA]
Afghan analysts fear their country's nascent democracy is no longer threatened only by the Taliban and other armed groups, but also by allegations of electoral fraud following the August 20 elections.
The resulting political crisis has left many wondering what kind of government will emerge over the next few weeks.
Preliminary results showed Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president, winning 54.6 per cent of the vote, but the process has been held up by investigations into allegations of massive fraud.
The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) originally called for a recount of 10 per cent of polling stations on the grounds that there was evidence of fraud.
In its report, published on the ECC's website earlier this week, the commission called for ballots cast at 210 polling stations to be discarded; the ECC said that nearly a third of ballots cast for Karzai were fraudulent.
If the suspect votes are ruled as void, Karzai would have less than the required 50 per cent result to avoid a runoff against his closest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minster.
For his part, the incumbent president has said that he believes in the "integrity of the election" and accused the media of exaggerating "the problems and sensitivities in the Afghanistan elections".
'Ghost polling stations'
Peter Galbraith, deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, was reportedly sacked after accusing his boss, Kai Eide, of withholding evidence of vote-rigging and of bias in Karzai's favour.
Eide denied that the UN had turned a blind eye to ballot-rigging, but later conceded that "ghost polling stations" had been used to produce thousands of fake votes for Karzai.
"The major mistake was for the UN not to play a role in the Election Commission (EC). Foreign monitoring for fairness was needed," says Ahmed Rashid, author of Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
"The problem with the Afghan EC was that its members were mostly selected by Karzai. There was no mechanism to choose truly independent officials."
The extent of the alleged fraud has undermined the democratic process hoped for by Nato and western donors. It has also exacerbated the deteriorating security situation and led to an increase in violence in the once relatively calm northern provinces of Afghanistan.
According to recent reports, Barack Obama, the US president, has been told by his top advisers that he should not commit more troops to Afghanistan until the political crisis is resolved.
As such, the Obama administration views the political situation in Afghanistan – and not the Taliban – as the primary threat to American success there.
Many Afghan leaders agree.
"This loss of trust in a fair process... has created a political vacuum which is being filled by al-Qaeda, insurgents and local strongmen, while international bureaucrats are hiding behind processes"
Ashraf Ghani, 2009 presidential candidate
"This loss of trust in a fair process happening at a very critical period has created a political vacuum which is being filled by al-Qaeda, insurgents and local strongmen, while international bureaucrats are hiding behind processes," says Ashraf Ghani, one of the leading candidates in the August 2009 presidential election.
Abdul Jabbar Naeemi, a former governor of Wardak province, believes many in Afghanistan have lost faith in democracy and see it as a means to money, power and exploitation.
"Democratic institutions were not genuinely strengthened," says Naeemi, who became the first high level government official to resign in 2008, citing undue interference from Kabul officials.
"The international effort has facilitated empowering personalities," he adds.
On 20 August, Obama told a US radio station that Afghanistan's elections appeared to have been successful, despite attempts by the Taliban to disrupt them with violence.
However, following growing complaints about electoral irregularities, Washington backed down. Now Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and other US officials are asking Karzai to accept the EEC's findings and agree to a runoff vote to end the crisis.
Prime minster role?
|Karzai is under pressure to accept a runoff poll with rival Abdullah Abdullah, above [AFP]
Earlier in the year, Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, suggested the creation of a chief executive officer role - a de facto prime minister - as a means of curbing presidential powers and ending political tension.
Rashid believes there is merit to such a proposal.
"There should be one neutral, educated figure, who is in charge of all development and budget control and has the authority to sack people for corruption," he says.
Naeemi, however, is sceptical of such a "quick fix for the purpose of accommodating an opposition leader." As such, he suspects the move could create more problems in the future.
But he does acknowledge that if the post was created to genuinely enhance the president's effectiveness it could "facilitate good governance and, if proven successful, we can later come up with a way to legalise it."
Ghani, who also claims to have been offered the CEO position, categorically opposes the creation of such a role which he claims is unconstitutional.
"Such a post is not provided for in the constitution of Afghanistan," he says. "Only the president has the top executive power and by law, cabinet ministers only answer to him and take orders from him."
Talk has also centred on the formation of a coalition government as a means of breaking the current political deadlock.
Ghani dismisses such a proposal: "A coalition of the corrupt will deepen the crisis, not solve it. It will not change the fundamentals of the problem... The current government is, in effect, a coalition government."
Karzai, too, has repeatedly spoken against the formation of a coalition government. His campaign argued it would nullify the electoral and democratic process, as elections must have one winner and that winner must not need to share power with losers.
Some have theorised that Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president, could be seeking to secure his position for life in the name of stability.
Compounding the current political crisis is the belief held by many in Afghanistan that the government has failed to take decisive action against a resurgent Taliban - neither engaging them in discourse, nor taking adequate military action.
|The government has been unable to stem the Taliban's attacks [AFP]
Violence linked to the Taliban now affects roughly 40 per cent of the country's districts. The government estimates that the Taliban and other groups may be able to call on as many as 25,000 fighters.
Naeemi, formerly one of Karzai's personal friends, points to "Helmand Syndrome" as one cause of the current unrest. Helmand province has increasingly become a hub of Taliban activities and opium cultivation.
"When problems started in Helmand province [southwest of Kabul] in 2003-2004, the root causes were never diagnosed. It was seen as an insignificant local issue and now has spread all over the country, even in the north," he says, referring to how Mussa Qala district was lost to the Taliban.
"We have not yet seen the emergence of a mechanism comprised of Afghans and the international community for dealing with such issues. This has disheartened the public and has led them to think that their lives, their safety and their dignity do not matter."
But most analysts believe that only a drastic change of objectives can increase the chances of success.
"Security and stability will not be achieved if the public is not a partner in this effort. So, restoring public confidence in the system must be the aim of all new strategies," insists Naeemi.
"Equally important is the creation and implementation of systems of monitoring and evaluation in all areas, military or civilian."
Many argue it will be impossible to secure the country without negotiating with the Taliban and eventually incorporating them within the political system.
Formerly powerful groups now left out of the power structure are thought to be fuelling the unrest. Pashtun tribesmen, for example, resent the influence exerted by other previously marginal groups with whom the US forged an alliance in 2001 to defeat the ruling Taliban.
Karzai's cabinet has also been accused of failing to tackle endemic corruption. A recent report by the global corruption watchdog, Transparency International, places Afghanistan as the fifth most corrupt state worldwide.
His supporters, however, say the president is being blamed for the west's failures and that the rising number of civilian casualties has fanned anti-western sentiments.
At present, Afghan analysts and political leaders across the spectrum also blame the international community for not adequately highlighting irregularities in the electoral process.
"On 19 August [the eve of the elections] elements of full-scale fraud were present, but the UN refused to acknowledge them," says Ghani.
"The quality of the election process was damaged and this has resulted in a massive loss of legitimacy for the UN, the international community and the democratic process. People see this as collusion between the UN system and the fifth most corrupt government in the world."
Loss of confidence
Jaded by years of conflict and foreign interference, Afghans interpreted the laissez-faire attitude of the US-led international community as their unwillingness to risk a change of leadership in Kabul.
Eight years after the US-led bombing that overthrew the Taliban, critics of the government maintain that the international community has failed to help the war-torn country build functional governance and a viable economy.
This week, Clinton said that Obama, while accepting the likelihood that Karzai will be returned to office, is taking a dual-track approach: putting pressure on Karzai to improve his performance while working with other power centres in Afghanistan.
Author Rashid believes the only way the Afghan president can regain some degree of credibility is to be a better partner with the international community.
"Karzai will have no choice but to accept the international community's conditions and benchmarks for corruption and development."