Standoff in Afghan elections

by Asif Haroon Rajaafghanistan_rel_2003

Once the Soviet Empire began to crumble from within because of economic meltdown and debilitating after-effects of Afghan venture, it could no longer extend assistance to Najibullah’s regime because of which, 110,000 strong Afghan National Army fragmented into bands of militia run by warlords. Showing complete disinterest in forming a stable coalition government in Kabul and abandoning Afghanistan in haste in 1989 after its objectives had been achieved; the US paved the way for a civil war in 1992.

The internecine war between the warlords waged for power came to an end when the Taliban after capturing Kandahar in 1994, captured Kabul in 1996. Mazar-e-Sharif was seized in 1997. Ahmad Shah Masood led Northern Alliance (NA) forces were confined to Panjsher Valley only spread over 9% of Afghan territory. Other alliance leaders shifted to Iran. The Taliban restored normalcy and eliminated vices by introducing strict Shariat. Peace was shattered by the invasion of NA ground forces fully supported by US led allied forces in October 2001, uprooting the Taliban and forcing them to take shelter in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

Occupation of Afghanistan sparked an insurgency led by Taliban and assisted by Al-Qaeda. It led to longest war in the recent history between the US led occupation forces and rag-tag Mujahideen waging Jihad to free their country. After failing to defeat the Taliban, the US and its allies have been left with no choice but to withdraw in utter humiliation by December 2014. As the time for the exit of occupation troops from Afghanistan is drawing closer, fears of unraveling of post 1989 scenario are being expressed.

The reason is that the US has utterly failed to deliver on its tall promises. Besides emasculating the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it wanted to weaken the hold of tribal culture, impose US-made democracy, liberalize/empower the women, rebuild and modernize Afghanistan, spread education, better the lives of the Afghans by providing job opportunities and carry out development works. Promoting non-Pashtun minority at the cost of majority Pashtuns was a big blunder the US committed. Relying heavily upon too many crooked cooks spoilt the broth. Hamid Karzai led regime installed in December 2001 proved to be a complete failure since it promoted cultures of corruption, inefficiency and poor governance. Societal vices including drug trafficking reappeared.

Pakistan, most suited to produce results against terrorism was distrusted and neglected, while untrustworthy and scheming Israel and India were trusted. Instead of focusing on Afghanistan, the US opened another front in Iraq and also diverted its major attention towards weakening Pakistan from within so as to extract its nuclear teeth. Overt war with the Taliban and with resistance forces in Iraq coupled with covert war against Pakistan and other target countries in the region gradually bled the economy of the sole super power.

The US military generals proved professionally too weak to handle the guerrilla war. They could neither win the hearts and minds of common Afghans, nor could defeat the rag-tag militants. Instead of revising war strategy to correct faults, they derived satisfaction in putting the blame of their failures on Pakistan. The US exit strategy seems as confused as it was during the course of the war. With no political reconciliation with the insurgents in place, long-term stability in Afghanistan remains questionable.

After keeping unpopular Hamid Karzai in power from 2001 onwards, third presidential election was organized in April 2014. Since Karzai couldn’t participate in the election for the third time due to constitutional restrictions, 11 presidential candidates were awarded tickets to contest. All the aspirants were from different ethnic backgrounds. The first round of presidential election took place on April 5 in which 8 candidates took part. Abdullah Abdullah, ex foreign minister won 45% votes and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and a senior World Bank executive who had allied himself with Rashid Dostum earned 31.56% votes and stood second. Zalmay Rassoul secured third position while Gul Agha Sherzai following him and others dropped out of the race.

As no candidate won more than 50% votes in the first round as required in the Afghan law, Abdullah and Ghani went into a run-off. Although Abdullah, who is half-Tajik and half-Pashtun, had a lead of 14%, Pashtun vote in the second round was crucial for him to beat Ghani hailing from Pashtun Ahmadzai tribe. To gain Pashtun vote which is the largest ethnic group, he joined hands with Hamid Karzai’s brother Mahmoud Karzai and also secured backing of presidential candidates Zalmay Rassoul and Gul Agha Sherzai. Ghani allied with Dostum secured the backing of Gulbadin led Hizb-e-Islami as well as of Ahmad Zia Massoud. These mix of ethnic alliances made the next round more complex and challenging.

Apparently Ghani had good chances of filling up the gap with the leading contender with the help of Pashtun votes, but Abdullah reduced the effect of this factor by allying with Pashtun warlords. It was widely speculated that the contest will be close and the margin of victory narrow thereby making things difficult for the winner to run the government smoothly.

Amidst conflicting guesswork, the run-off was held on June 14 in which the voter turnout was more than the first round despite the Taliban threat of blowing up polling stations and several terror attacks taking place on the polling day. Preliminary results are to be announced on July 2 and final results on August 2. While counting of votes was going on, however, amiability gave way to petulance when the vote count pushed Ghani ahead of Abdullah. Failing to reconcile with the sudden change of fortunes, Abdullah has raised a storm saying that high-level fraud has taken place at the behest of Karzai in the counting of votes to make Ghani wear the crown. Abdullah had raised similar concerns during the 2009 elections when he was pitched against Hamid Karzai and the latter was declared winner in the run-off round. From that time onward he distanced himself from Karzai and started to edge closer towards Pakistan to win its support and his overtures were reciprocated.

This time Abdullah was very confident to win the race particularly after he got a reasonably good lead in the first round. The Pathans have probably opted for a full-Pathan rather than a half-Pathan who prides to be a Tajik. They have not forgotten that he had given a raw deal to the Pathans when he was holding a powerful portfolio in the government for a long time. Seeing that the trophy which was within his grasping reach is slipping out of his hands, Abdullah has threatened to boycott the election knowing full well that counting is only half way through and after the announcement of preliminary results on July 2, he will have a month time to register his complaints with the election commission. He led a procession in Kabul on June 27 protesting against rigging in vote counting.

A government with a heavy mandate from all the ethnic communities would enable it to confront the complex internal challenges squarely. A weak government under Abdullah or Ghani will not only remain fearful of Taliban but also at the mercy of USA, both for economic and military support and would plead for longer stay of residual force. Abdullah being highly pro-India will remain tied to India and forge deeper politico-economic-military-intelligence cooperation. Ties with Pakistan will remain not-so-friendly since Abdullah’s regime will not wrap up RAW’s set up on Afghan soil geared towards Pakistan. In case Ghani wins the race, he may not be so keen to lean heavily upon India and may prefer closer ties with Pakistan. Helped by Pakistan, he will have a better chance to reach an agreement with the Taliban for a power sharing political settlement.

Whatever the outcome, the change of leadership is not likely to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan. Whosoever wins he will for sure sign the bilateral security agreement, a prerequisite for America’s stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Although the security and combat responsibility will be transferred completely to the Kabul administration by the end of this year, the presence of up to 12000 residual forces would keep the US involved in the Afghan conflict till at least 2016, implying thereby that war in Afghanistan will continue. The question is whether limited US presence will be able to guarantee the stability when well over 130,000 troops couldn’t. The Taliban are likely to step up their militancy to force the residual force and the US installed regime to quit. They have already initiated an offensive in Sangeen District of Helmand Province putting ANA’s capacity to confront the Taliban threat to a severe test. Instability in Afghanistan will keep Pakistan’s western border turbulent.

The writer is a retired Brig/war veteran, defence analyst/columnist/historian, Director MEASAC Research Centre, Director Board of Governors Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Member Board of Governors Opinion Maker.

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