A Bridge Too Far?

Le­git­i­macy of the Afghan gen­eral elec­tions – and of the even­tual win­ner – will be of ut­most im­por­tance, given the un­cer­tainty that sur­rounds the en­tire process.

Southasia - - REGION AFGHANISTAN - By Yaqoob Khan Ban­gash The writer is the chair­per­son of the Depart­ment of His­tory, For­man Chris­tian Col­lege, La­hore.

On April 5, 2014 Afghanistan will wit­ness a mile­stone. For the first time in the coun­try’s his­tory there will be a demo­cratic tran­si­tion from one head of state and govern­ment to an­other – the con­sti­tu­tion of Afghanistan for­bids the in­cum­bent Hamid Karzai from run­ning for an­other term. This fact in it­self will make the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions more sig­nif­i­cant.

Afghanistan has never had a peace­ful tran­si­tion be­fore. The third since the fall of the Tal­iban regime, these elec­tions come at a time when un­cer­tainty pre­vails in the coun­try. Pres­i­dent Karzai has still not signed the Bi­lat­eral Se­cu­rity Agree­ment, which will see thou­sands of coali­tion troops stay on in the coun­try in train­ing and ad­vi­sory ca­pac­ity. The coun­try’s re­la­tions with the United States can be termed as shaky at best.

The U.S. has al­ready cut in half its aid to Afghanistan and, with a ma­jor with­drawal in the off­ing, the con­se­quences of this aid de­crease are yet to be felt. These elec­tions will also be the last un­der a strong for­eign mil­i­tary and civil­ian pres­ence and will cer­tainly fore­shadow fu­ture po­lit­i­cal and eth­nic align­ments. Their ef­fects on the con­tin­u­ing Tal­iban in­sur­gency have also to be seen, es­pe­cially since the Tal­iban have vowed to dis­rupt the elec­tions and pre­vent people from voting.

Eleven can­di­dates will con­test the up­com­ing elec­tions; they range from for­mer tech­nocrats to the per­son who first in­vited Osama bin Laden to the coun­try to a grand­son of for­mer King Zahir Shah.

The most im­por­tant and se­ri­ous con­tender for slot of pres­i­dent is the for­mer for­eign min­is­ter, Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah. An oph­thal­mol­o­gist who was also a prom­i­nent mem­ber of the anti-Soviet re­sis­tance, Dr. Ab­dul­lah is of mixed Pash­tun and Ta­jik lin­eage. This makes him the only can­di­date

who has a strong ap­peal for both the Pash­tun and non-Pash­tun eth­nic con­stituen­cies. He was close to Ahmed Shah Ma­sood, the as­sas­si­nated leader of the North­ern Al­liance and later joined the Karzai govern­ment as its for­eign min­is­ter. He re­signed the post in 2005 and emerged as the only se­ri­ous con­tender to Karzai in the 2009 elec­tions, but he with­drew in the sec­ond round.

His party, the Coali­tion for Change and Hope, won 90 seats in the 2010 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions and be­came the largest op­po­si­tion party. With a strong grass­roots-level or­ga­ni­za­tion and sup­port, Ab­dul­lah stands a good chance of win­ning the elec­tions. But his close­ness to the erst­while North­ern Al­liance might unite the po­lit­i­cally sus­pi­cious Pash­tuns be­hind a Pash­tun can­di­date if the elec­tions go for a runoff, leading to Ab­dul­lah’s de­feat.

With a mod­ern out­look and in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, Ab­dul­lah is con­sid­ered pro-West, but the elec­toral dy­nam­ics of the coun­try might align with the more cau­tious and con­ser­va­tive war­lords who con­trol sig­nif­i­cant voting blocks. This may com­pro­mise some of his plans. Ab­dul­lah is also op­posed to talks with the Tal­iban and has al­ready suf­fered fa­tal at­tacks on his aides. His close­ness with In­dia is a cause for con­cern for Pak­istan, a coun­try with sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­est in Afghanistan, and his elec­tion will cer­tainly fur­ther com­pli­cate the al­ready very tense and frac­tious re­la­tion­ship be­tween Kabul and Is­lam­abad.

An­other strong can­di­date is Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai who, with stints at the World Bank, a doc­tor­ate from Columbia and ex­ten­sive lec­tur­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in the West, is an ex­pe­ri­enced tech­no­crat. That said, he only re­ceived 3 per­cent votes in 2009 and there­fore has a weak po­lit­i­cal base. This time, how­ever, he has aligned him­self with a pow­er­ful war­lord – Ab­dul Rashid Dos­tum, whose solid sup­port in the Pash­tun vote bank could make Ahmedzai the con­sol­i­dated choice of the Pash­tuns in a runoff elec­tion. But his al­liance with Dos­tum – ac­cused of sev­eral war crimes – will cer­tainly di­lute his prore­form cre­den­tials and com­pro­mise his stand­ing among the more ed­u­cated and lib­eral Afghans – his nat­u­ral con­stituency.

The can­di­da­ture of Qay­oum Karzai is also an in­ter­est­ing ad­di­tion to the elec­tion sce­nario and might be­come sig­nif­i­cant if the in­cum­bent Karzai de­cides to throw his weight be­hind his brother (Hamid Karzai has yet to de­clare his sup­port for any can­di­date). How­ever, with no pub­lic sup­port by Hamid Karzai for Qay­oum, and the lat­ter’s staunch sup­port for a deal with the United States – some­thing his brother wants rene­go­ti­ated – this con­tender seems like a weak op­tion. Qay­oum does not have the po­lit­i­cal charisma of his younger brother and also lacks the anti-Soviet re­sis­tance stamp to dis­tin­guish him from other can­di­dates.

As a mat­ter of fact, he was run­ning restaurants in the U.S. till the fall of the Tal­iban govern­ment and only re­turned to the coun­try af­ter­wards. His stint in the par­lia­ment also ended in de­spair and his ap­par­ent re­liance on his fam­ily name and con­nec­tions can­not take him too far. He has also been bogged down by scan­dals which have badly af­fected his fam­ily. He could, how­ever, be the spoiler in the first round, forc­ing a sec­ond round on the leading can­di­date, Dr. Ab­dul­lah.

Ab­dul Ra­sul Sayyaf is the man who gave the mil­i­tant Abu Sayyaf group in the Philip­pines his name. He in­vited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan af­ter the U.S. at­tacked Al-Qaeda hide­outs in Sudan and was con­sid­ered the ‘men­tor’ to Khaled Sheikh Mo­ham­mad, re­port­edly, the mas­ter­mind of the 9/11 at­tacks. He is the most con­tro­ver­sial of the can­di­dates. He was ed­u­cated at Cairo’s Al Azhar Univer­sity and was a leading mu­jahidin com­man­der in the 1980s. He has had close ties with both Saudi Ara­bia and Pak­istan, but de­spite his con­ser­vatism, is op­posed to the Tal­iban. He has lit­tle chance of suc­cess due to a weak po­lit­i­cal base but could win a num­ber of votes due to his align­ment with a pop­u­lar for­mer mili­tia leader, Ismail Khan, who was also gover­nor of western Herat.

The other can­di­dates, such as Zal­may Ra­sul, Gen­eral Ab­dul Rahim War­dak, Gul Agha Sherzai and Nader Naim, a grand­son of King Zahir Shah, have pock­ets of sup­port which will hardly dent the out­come.

In ad­di­tion to the var­i­ous chal­lenges that the new pres­i­dent is go­ing to face, the very act of hold­ing elec­tions in Afghanistan is fraught with com­pli­ca­tions. Around 12 mil­lion Afghans, out of a pop­u­la­tion of more than 30 mil­lion, are el­i­gi­ble to vote. How­ever, with un­re­li­able voter reg­is­tra­tion cards and the ab­sence of pho­tos on voter cards of hun­dreds of women vot­ers ( due to cul­tural and re­li­gious sen­si­bil­i­ties), the chances of rig­ging are high.

Fur­ther, while the cur­rent win­ter has not been very harsh, all voting sta­tions are not very ac­ces­si­ble and the boy­cott and threats by the Tal­iban may de­ter people from turn­ing up to vote. The le­git­i­macy of these elec­tions – and of the even­tual win­ner – will there­fore be of ut­most im­por­tance.

Afghanistan is al­ready be­set with many prob­lems and these are ex­pected to in­crease in the com­ing months and years. There­fore, the forth­com­ing elec­tions are per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant in the post-Tal­iban era and will chart the fu­ture tra­jec­tory of the coun­try. With no clear can­di­date poised to win eas­ily, the coast is wide open – com­pet­i­tive, ad­ven­tur­ous and yet as scary as most of Afghan his­tory.

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