From crisis to crisis

Print edition : August 08, 2014

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (left) and Abdullah Abdullah at the press conference addressed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul on July 12. Kerry said that the two leaders had agreed on a government of "national unity". Photo: Rahmat Gul/AP

Kerry with President Hamid Karzai after a dinner on July 11. Karzai has agreed to the postponement of the inauguration of the new President. Photo: Jim Bourg/AP

An election process marked by malpractices by all parties and the possibility of the Taliban’s return to share power make the future of Afghanistan bleak.

In what was more or less a replay of the presidential election held four years ago, Abdullah Abdullah has once again charged that the election process this year was deeply flawed and that he was robbed of victory. As the voting trends became clear in early July and his main rival built up an unassailable lead, Abdullah dramatically announced that he would refuse to recognise the result of the election. In the preliminary results released on July 6, the Afghan Electoral Commission projected that Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who is a former World Bank official, was going to win by a landslide. Abdullah, sensing that the political tide had turned against him in the second round after the Pashtun vote had consolidated around Ghani, started making allegations of widespread electoral fraud even before the Election Commission came out with its preliminary projection.

To further complicate the latest political crisis in Afghanistan, Abdullah, who had served as Foreign Minister under Hamid Karzai during his first term, threatened to form a parallel government. Abdullah was a leading figure in the Northern Alliance which had fought the Taliban government before the American invasion of Afghanistan. That Alliance, led by the late Ahmad Shah Masood, Abdullah’s mentor, had the support of countries such as India, Iran and Russia. The Northern Alliance forces had given a helping hand to the Americans as they routed the Taliban from Kabul. The implicit message being sent from the Abdullah camp was that if significant political concessions were not made, a grouping similar to the Northern Alliance could emerge again, raising once more the spectre of a civil war.

This is a prospect not relished by the Obama administration. Both Abdullah and the man likely to be the next President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, had pledged to sign the United States-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement if elected to the presidency. Both of them enjoy close relations with the U.S. administration. Ghani, like many leading Afghan politicians, holds dual American and Afghan citizenship. President Karzai, much to the chagrin of the Obama administration, had refused to sign the agreement, arguing that it infringed on Afghan sovereignty. He, however, left it to the discretion of his successor to accept or reject the security pact offered by the Americans. Washington has given the highest priority to the security agreement, which would allow the continued presence of significant numbers of American troops on Afghan soil and also provide the U.S. with more leverage in the Central and South Asian region.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had rushed post-haste to Kabul in the second week of July to defuse the situation that had the potential to derail the orderly withdrawal of U.S./North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces from the country. The deadline for withdrawal is the end of this year. Some of Abdullah’s key allies, including his running mate Atta Mohammad Noor, have been loudly demanding the formation of a parallel government. Noor is a rival of another warlord, Rashid Dostum, who coincidentally is Abdullah’s candidate for Vice-President.

The formation of a parallel government would once again split the country on ethnic lines. In the 200,000-strong Afghan National Army, more than half the officer corps and the majority of troops are non-Pashtun, mainly Tajik. If it comes to a showdown, the Afghan security forces could side with those who were once with the Northern Alliance. Many Afghanistan watchers, however, feel that such a scenario is anyway inevitable after the bulk of the American forces leave the country.

More than 40 per cent of the population is Pashtun. The Taliban’s support base is among them. If, as many predict, the Taliban makes steady military gains after the American troop withdrawal, an alliance similar to the Northern Alliance could once again be cobbled up. The foreign powers which backed the Northern Alliance, such as India, Iran and Russia, are still suspicious of the Taliban and its close relationship with the Pakistani intelligence and security services. It is widely presumed that the Quetta Shura, comprising the top Taliban leadership, including its emir, Mullah Omar, is holed up in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

A little bit of arm-twisting by Kerry during his visit to Kabul saw Abdullah climbing down and agreeing to the compromise formula proposed by the U.S. President Obama had issued a warning to the Abdullah camp that resorting to extraconstitutional means would lead to the cutting off of all U.S. assistance to Afghanistan. Ninety per cent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) of $34 billion comes from Western military spending and foreign aid. The U.S. had already reduced its civilian aid by half to $1.2 billion last year.

Kerry announced on July 12 that all eight million votes cast in the election would be audited in the presence of international observers. Kerry stated that the result of the audit would be final and announced that both Ghani and Abdullah had agreed that a government of “national unity” would be formed to be headed by the winner of the election. There is little doubt that the ultimate winner is going to be Ghani. The unwritten understanding seems to be that many of Abdullah’s close associates will be accommodated in the next government. Both Abdullah and Ghani were present when Kerry made his statement. The two rivals for the presidency were then seen warmly greeting each other.

Karzai welcomed the latest developments though he had initially spoken out against outside interference in Afghanistan’s electoral process. Much of the ire of Abdullah and his supporters were directed at Karzai. They had accused the President of masterminding the so-called massive electoral fraud. The President’s portraits were pulled down and trashed by angry supporters of the Tajik leaders in Kabul after the Election Commission announced its preliminary result. Karzai, after a cordial meeting with Kerry, has now agreed to the postponement of the inaugural ceremony for the new President. Karzai was supposed to demit office on August 2. NATO planes will be carrying the ballot boxes from the provinces to the capital, Kabul, for tabulation in the ongoing efforts to convince Afghans and the international community that the counting process at least will be transparent and free.

Abdullah had made similar accusations of fraud when he had contested against Karzai in the 2009 elections. Abdullah dramatically withdrew from the second round at that time, claiming that the rigging of the kind he had witnessed in the first round would make his participation in the final round meaningless. In the present election, Abdullah had no complaints about the first round, in which he emerged with 45 per cent of the votes polled. Ghani had come second with around 32 per cent of the vote. Abdullah, who is of mixed Tajik-Pashtun parentage, had got the majority of the votes from the non-Pashtun bloc of voters, comprising mainly ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras. Ghani’s opportunistic alliance with Rashid Dostum helped him corner the bulk of the Uzbek minority vote. Dostum, who rules the Uzbek area in northern Afghanistan with an iron hand, is known for his brutal and unscrupulous ways. The militia he commanded had prevented President Najibullah from leaving Kabul after the progressive government he led had fallen to the mujahideen groups backed by the U.S. and Pakistan. This led to his capture and brutal execution. Dostum’s forces were responsible for a lot of atrocities in the wake of the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban government. Dostum, in all likelihood, will be the next Vice-President of Afghanistan.

There is no denying that fraudulent votes were cast, as had happened in all the previous elections held under the American occupation. In the first round in this year’s election, the turnout in the Pashtun-dominated areas was minimal. In the second round, more than a million more votes were cast, most of them in the Pashtun-dominated areas. Ghani claims that the turnout had gone up owing to the efforts of his campaign team to persuade fellow Pashtuns and women voters to come out in large numbers. The Taliban had called for a boycott of the election and was successful in ensuring a low turnout in its southern strongholds in the first round. In the second round, the Taliban may not have been all that averse to ballot boxes being stuffed in favour of Ghani.

Ghani, unlike Abdullah, seems inclined to negotiate with the Taliban and include its representatives in the power structure. The Americans have also realistically concluded that getting the Taliban on board is the only way to prevent the country from lurching into full-scale civil war. Only around 10,000 U.S. soldiers will remain in the country by the end of the year. They will mostly be confined to Kabul and the nearby air force base in Bagram. The U.S. hopes to retain more bases and even increase the number of troops in Afghanistan after a new security agreement comes into force. The Americans need more bases to keep an eye on Iran and Russia and to continue with their drone operations against the militants in Pakistan. If a political settlement is not reached with the Taliban soon, most observers expect a surge in attacks on government forces in the coming months. An escalation in Taliban attacks has been visible in recent weeks.

The presence of other Pashtun candidates in the electoral fray had also eaten into Ghani’s tally in the first round. In the second round, both Ghani and Abdullah could have benefited from rigging. In Pashtun-dominated Kandahar and Zabul, Ghani got 86 and 92 per cent of the votes respectively. In Tajik-dominated areas of Parwan and Kapisa, Abdullah got more than 86 per cent of the vote. A senior adviser of Abdullah told the American media that President Karzai was responsible for engineering an “industrial-scale fraud”. From available evidence, all sides seem to be in the same boat. In earlier elections too, ballot boxes and voting lists have routinely gone missing. International observers, including those from Western countries, have taken for granted that incidents of massive fraud are a given in Afghan elections. Anyway, fair and free elections are a tall order in a country that is under foreign military occupation and is plagued by insurgency..

In general, the Afghan people have got a raw deal during the 13 years of American occupation. Recent events have belied the claims that the U.S. has succeeded in implementing the rule of law and democracy in the country. Unemployment stands at 35 per cent and those living below the poverty line constitute more than 40 per cent of the population. According to United Nations reports, malnutrition in children is going up. Violence against women is also rising. Targeted killings by U.S. military drones have claimed hundreds of innocent civilian lives. The warlords raised and nourished by the U.S. in the 1980s continue to flourish and have a stranglehold on the economy and the politics of the country. More than 630,000 Afghans live in squalid refugee camps. And with the Taliban seemingly poised for a return, there is very little solace in sight for the Afghan people in the coming years