Elections in Afghanistan and the Taliban factor

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 02.04.14

The Afghanistan presidential elections have been slated for April 5, 2014. Out of nine
contenders, the top three contestants are Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai
Rassoul, who are all vying to succeed incumbent President Hamid Karzai. Amongst them, to
become stronger, political make-and-break may matter. Amongst them, to be successful,
the ethnic tinge of a candidate may matter. Amongst them, to be a winner, the force of
money and guns may matter. However, to all of them, the Taliban factor is important in their
having the capacity and intent to sabotage the elections process. The frustration of the
Taliban at the prospect of the forthcoming elections is obvious. They have attacked offices
of the election commission and have been threatening prospective voters of dire
consequences in case the latter cast their votes.

In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban have a palpable presence and the security situation is
far worse there than in northern Afghanistan. In this way, the security threat will be the main
challenge to Afghan voters especially in southern (and eastern) Afghanistan. This is where
the problem lies for those running for the top slot. In a low or zero turnout election lies the
success of the Taliban to delegitimise the future government of Kabul. On the other hand,
to ensure a substantial turnout is the major challenge for all the candidates. The low
turnout in the presidential elections of 2009 was one of the reasons for stuffing ballot boxes
with votes, to show the world that an election did in fact take place.

It is expected that the final round of the elections will be between Abdullah, who is an
opponent of Karzai, and Rassoul, who is a supporter of Karzai. In short, the election may be
reduced to a contest between pro-Karzai and anti-Karzai political alliances. In the inner
politics of Afghanistan, Karzai has attained substantial influence. There are two apparent
strengths of Karzai: first, he has successfully projected his image as an Afghan (and some
say, a Pashtun) president who speaks for Afghan nationalism, and secondly, he has
developed a rapport, on one basis or another, with most, if not all, regional and national
political groups. Karzai has tried to project his Afghan nationalism by condemning the US on
two counts: first, killing Afghan citizens even as collateral damage owing to military
operations or drone strikes against the Taliban or al Qaeda, and second, sparing Pakistan
from a military operation on Taliban hideouts in its tribal belt.

Karzai has expressed his anger at the US by not signing the Bilateral Security Agreement
(BSA) with them. This point is more relevant to Karzai’s second strategy: to make an
attempt to appease others, including his rivals. By not signing the BSA, Karzai has tried to
show his hatred of the presence of foreign boots on Afghan land. In this way, Karzai has
attempted to stand ideologically closer to the Taliban. Karzai’s policies may yield fruit by
ensuring the electoral victory of Rassoul. Interestingly, despite Karzai’s stance against the
BSA, all presidential candidates, including Rassoul, are supportive of the BSA and have
shown their willingness to sign it if they win the elections. This fact shows that the BSA is in
the interests of Afghanistan.

Karzai’s policy of appeasing Afghan warlords contains two important aspects: first, Karzai
has overlooked the rampant corruption plaguing the Afghan system. Second, he has
fostered favouritism. By so doing, Karzai has tried to mollify his critics and reduce the
number of his opponents. Furthermore, by doing so, he has become able to secure his
political survival at the helm of affairs till his successor takes oath. Both these points
(allowing corruption and supporting favouritism) remained his strengths but, nevertheless,
the US remained annoyed at Karzai for the same reasons. Another point has annoyed the
US: on the one hand, Karzai has tried to stay in touch with the Taliban while, on the other
hand, he has opposed the Taliban opening an independent office in Doha, Qatar, to
negotiate with the US. Karzai has tried to persuade the Taliban to take part in the elections.
He knows that the Taliban could disrupt elections in the south and east of
Afghanistan, as they did in 2009. A low turnout of voters in the Pashtun areas (of south and
east Afghanistan) would strengthen Abdullah who represents the Tajiks and non-Pashtun
populace. This time, rigging the elections by stuffing ballot boxes with votes — even after a
low turnout in the Pashtun areas — may provoke Abdullah into not accepting the election
results.

That situation would create another crisis in Afghanistan. If the fear of the Taliban stops
Afghans in the south and east from going to polling booths and if no rigging takes place
orchestrated by Karzai’s camp, the chances for Abdullah to win the election from the north
and west of Afghanistan would be enormous. Furthermore, it is estimated that this time the
youth vote may play a decisive role in determining the future of Afghanistan. The third front-
runner presidential candidate, Ashraf Ghani, is relying on the youth bank. Currently,
Afghanistan has the ability to hold elections but Afghanistan may not have the ability to hold
an election free of rigging, especially mass rigging. This is where the catch lies. Abdullah,
who also contested the presidential elections against Karzai in 2009, may not tolerate
electoral fraud used to defeat him before. Apparently, the Taliban factor is bent on
interrupting the elections, especially in its area of influence. How Afghanistan under the
auspices of Karzai will hold a transparent election is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, the fate
of the election will have a direct bearing on the state of talks being held between the
Pakistani Taliban and the government of Pakistan.

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