Many years ago a Kandahari turban taught me how sensible and pragmatic Afghans can be when dealing with foreign influence. On one of my early visits to rural Kandahar as an aid worker in the latter days of the Jihad, I found myself camping in a village, along with dozens of fellow travelers, enjoying the camaraderie of the back roads one uses in a conflict. As we drank chai by moonlight, a Kandahari swapped turbans with me. Whatever it was that initially attracted my companion to the foreigner's turban; it vanished in the clear light of day. In the morning he swapped back, a sensible informed decision.
The idea of foreign influence commonly enters Afghan political discourse in two related ways. Firstly there is "foreign determinism" - the notion that all key political outcomes in Afghanistan (whether elections or internal power struggles) are determined by foreign powers, through opaque processes visible only to them and their Afghan proxies.
Some Afghans believe and are appalled by the alleged foreign power to pick leaders. Others are sort of in awe of or seek to exploit it. Secondly there is "foreign meddling" - the notion that on a slightly lower level outsiders routinely dabble in Afghan politics, bribing politicians to submit to an alien agenda. Seen like this, Afghans' links with foreigners are treasonable, a betrayal of the national interest.
When someone invokes this version of the "foreign hand" in Afghan politics, they do so to stigmatize both sides – the foreign meddler and his Afghan accomplice. I have listened to many variants of these ideas when discussing elections with Afghans. The ideas remain a potent factor in electoral discourse. It is well worth considering how some daylight can be shed on the strange claims of foreign backing and interference to ensure that they do not distract Afghans when making decisions about their political future.
Despite a decade of efforts to encourage democracy in Afghanistan, "foreign determinism" still infects discussion around presidential election processes. Everyone wants to know who the foreigners, especially the Americans, will back for President, on the assumption that this will pretty much sway the result. In previous electoral cycles I have found myself being interrogated by Afghan friends keen to know the foreigners' intentions so that they can position themselves accordingly.
In a party-less system with so much patronage power concentrated in the presidency there is a strong logic compelling political brokers to position themselves so that they can have a claim on whoever wins. Maybe the safest thing to do is ally yourself with whoever has the foreign backing.
The problem with foreign determinism is that it is wrong - in reality the Americans do not get to pick the winner in an Afghan election. But Afghan guessing or bluffing about American intention can skew the process nonetheless. Many Afghans have explained to me confidently that in 2001 Zulmay Khalilzad, on behalf of the Bush administration, chose who would lead post-Taliban Afghanistan.
They rationalize that ergo Afghan presidents can only serve at the pleasure of the United States. After all why would the United States invest so much in Afghanistan without taking care to put a reliable partner in charge there? The logic is flawed. Afghanistan in 2012 has a democratic constitution which sets out how long a president will serve and how Afghans are to elect his successor.
The US and other allies of Afghanistan have repeatedly claimed that strengthening of constitutional rule is at the heart of what they are doing in the country. If they were to start picking favorites or fixing elections it would undermine their case for being in Afghanistan in the first place and damage their standing internationally.
Even if this result in the US being subjected to bouts of spirited criticism in Afghan public debate, it is pretty much obliged to let Afghan politics take their course. No one should expect the US to be issuing badges saying "approved candidate" in an Afghan election. Afghan political brokers trying to work out who is going to win would be better advised to look at the political machines, the alliances and the natural constituencies of the contenders and work out who is best placed to win Afghan support, not foreign.
Sensible Afghan commentators still tend to push back with an argument for foreign determinism by pointing out that in recent elections there have been alarming examples of candidates abusing the official machinery to gain electoral advantage. We have all seen the 2009 youtube videos of uluswals (the chiefs) and police chiefs stuffing ballot boxes to get the President re-elected. The commentators argue that this is a variant of foreign determinism because it is American military and financial muscle which props up the government, ultimately paying the salary of the ballot-stuffing uluswal.
This kind of abuse of official machinery to rig elections poses a genuine dilemma for Afghanistan's allies. There is a whole section on "strengthening shared democratic values" in the new Strategic Partnership Agreement, under which Afghanistan has committed to holding "free, fair and transparent elections". If either side were to turn a blind eye to future rigging it would indeed undermine the political basis for continued US support to Afghanistan. But those who believe in determinism will not be swayed by the mere text of an agreement and will be looking to see what concrete steps are taken to strengthen electoral transparency before Afghans go to the polls again.
The notion of foreign determinism can work in the opposite direction also, when Afghans wrongly interpret international support for electoral processes as being a deliberate attempt to obtain a particular outcome, to eject the incumbent. In 2009 some supporters of President Karzai misread the efforts of the Electoral Complaints Commission to throw out bogus votes and US diplomatic support for acceptance that the presidential election would go to a second round as a US version of election rigging, against the president.
In reality the opposite happened. Those who resisted the immense pressure to include the bogus votes in the results salvaged some degree of legitimacy for the election. They helped avert the disastrous situation of the country being left with no legally elected president.
Foreign meddling normally boils down to one thing – money. Over the years numerous Afghans have treated me to revelations about which politicians have received generous gifts from foreign powers to ensure their election to parliament or to promote that country's cause. Only once did I receive a confession - a description by a defeated parliamentary candidate of how he had sought and received funding from a neighboring country intelligence agency for his campaign. The story was long and detailed, with almost pathetic twists.
The agency delivered less than it had promised. The last batch of funding was stolen by another foreign funded candidate. And my indebted friend ended up hiding from the people who had rented him cars and catered for the thousands of potential voters who have to be fed in an electoral campaign. If there was any truth in this candidate's confession, this particular episode of meddling anyway had zero impact on the outcome. The only people who lost out were perhaps the tax payers whose resources were being squandered by a rogue agency out of its depth in Afghanistan.
But most allegations of foreign meddling which I have heard have consisted of allegations with no evidence. They are best thought of as attempts to malign competitors by asserting that they depend on foreign links and therefore are not true Afghans. Afghanistan's own spies are perhaps the world's most prolific in fabricating intelligence. Woe betides the leader who expects them to inform his decision making. They are masters at producing reports describing out-of-favor political leaders meeting with Russian or American or neighboring country officers to receive cash.
I recently reread Professor Anthony Hyman's treatise on Afghan nationalism. He would have described fabricated tales of foreign links as another example of exploitation of the xenophobic streak in Afghan nationalism. The wise observer of Afghan politics, confronted with an allegation of foreign meddling will ask who is making the allegation, what evidence they present, whose reputation is tarnished by the allegation and who stands to benefit. Most tales of Afghans serving as conduits for foreign meddling are simply invented as part of the cut and thrust of Afghan politics.
Of course concerns about meddling are not unique to Afghanistan. All mature democracies have provisions to ensure accountability of politicians' sources of support. Only one element of this is to ensure that politicians answer to domestic backers. Thus for example Afghanistan's political parties act prohibits external funding.
The idea of making politicians declare where they received their campaign funds from is to prevent organized crime buying up politicians and to ensure that people know which interest groups are backing them. These issues are all too relevant in Afghanistan where there is so little financial transparency in politics and the lack of political parties makes it difficult to work out what interests politicians actually represent. Perhaps the soundest way for Afghans to evaluate whether they like a politician or not would be to ask whether they are happy with where his campaign funds came from.
Some practical conclusions can be drawn from recent experience of foreign determinism and foreign meddling in Afghanistan. The idea that foreigners, especially Americans, get to pick the winners in an Afghan election was always erroneous. Fortunately the influence of this idea is probably now on the decline. The maturing of debate in the Afghan media and the wind down of the NATO presence will together encourage the realization that success for Afghan politicians depends on their constituency at home, not abroad.
Afghan politicians who themselves lack a home constituency will still try to weaken their rivals with accusations of benefiting from foreign patronage. But as Afghan politics mature such allegations, made without real evidence, should backfire and expose the weakness of the accusers. One can but hope that, by the light of day, Afghan voters will make their own informed decisions on what is good for them.