Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah among favourites in Afghan election but winner can do little to alter US-Taliban dynamic
Ashraf Ghani would certainly project a victory as a mandate from Afghan people in any future peace process with the Taliban.
Despite the absence of credible polling, Ghani is the favourite of the more than two dozen candidates.
Another contender is Abdullah Abdullah, a Pashtun-Tajik who has shared power with Ghani as his chief executive
Ironically, it would not matter much to the US and Taliban who will occupy the Afghan presidential palace
Amid much uncertainty, violence, chaos and scepticism, Afghanistan witnessed another presidential contest on 28 September. This is the fourth presidential election in Afghanistan since 2001, when the fundamentalist Taliban regime was toppled in the wake of the 11 September, 2001, terror attacks on the United States.
President Ashraf Ghani is seeking a second term. Much of the scepticism about election stems from the widespread feeling among the Afghan people that holding the presidential election was a futile exercise before finalising a peace deal with the Taliban. It is no surprise that the Taliban denounced the electoral process, which they felt, was designed to prop up the Ghani regime.
They stepped up violence in the past few weeks, and fear of further attacks may have kept many voters at home. Now that the voting has ended, the Taliban will do its best to shore up the narrative of massive electoral fraud so that the results can be challenged.
Another reason of scepticism is historical: elections in Afghanistan are notoriously flawed. It should not be forgotten that the 2009 and 2014 elections were mired in allegations of pervasive mismanagement, corruption and fraud.
In 2014, Ghani was in a deadlock with Abdullah Abdullah. When neither was willing to give in, the US had to work behind the scenes to arrange a power-sharing deal.
Turnout in the 28 September election was remarkably low as compared to previous presidential elections. Questions are already being raised about the manner in which this election was held. The preliminary results are not expected to be announced before mid-October. The results will likely be challenged. Former president Hamid Karzai bitterly criticised the elections, terming it an attempt to invite a “heart patient to run a marathon.” He called for the election to be scrapped as Afghanistan was passing through a deep political uncertainty.
Last week, some well-known Afghan politicians such as former vice-president Yunus Qanooni, former Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor, former minister Mohammad Ismail Khan, former national security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta and many others issued a statement asking for the postponement of the election process and an immediate resumption of the US-Taliban negotiations.
According to the statement: “There are many realities which show that the election will not reduce the crisis in the country, instead it will double the crisis, fuel division among the people, weaken institutions and affect the trust in democracy and political partnership.”
But Ghani wanted it at all cost. His National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, recently said in an interview that “elections were a way for us to show, for the people of Afghanistan to show, we are committed to democracy and self-determination and that is how we want to see Afghanistan ruled and that was the most important message and I think that was delivered.”
Defying calls for cancellation of election, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission went ahead with the polls. Afghan Election officials believed that biometric voter verification machines would help ensure fairness and transparency because these machines would take the fingerprints and photograph of every voter when they cast their ballot. But these machines failed during the 2018 parliamentary polls.
There was almost negligible campaigning due to a spike in violence over the past few weeks. The Taliban indulged in indiscriminate violence in order to grab as much territory as possible as a bargaining chip during their talks with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative.
However, cancellation of the peace talks further infuriated the insurgents.
That is why, fearing more terrorist violence, Ghani opted to campaign via videoconferencing. Though both Ghani and Abdullah held campaign rallies in different Afghan provinces, it was not sufficient to reach voters. At one of the few rallies Ghani attended, a suicide bomber killed at least 26. More than 70,000 security personnel were deployed to protect around 5,000 polling centres.
Despite the absence of credible polling, Ghani is the favourite of the more than two dozen candidates. Often described as short-tempered and demanding, he believes himself to be capable of handling the responsibility of rebuilding the country. He has made frequent overtures to the Taliban, who dismiss him as an American “puppet”.
But ironically, the US also sidelined him from the peace process, which now remains suspended. Ghani would certainly project his victory as a mandate from Afghan people in any future peace process with the Taliban.
Another contender is Abdullah Abdullah, a Pashtun-Tajik who has shared power with Ghani as his chief executive in the so-called National Unity Government (NUG). He was once a member of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government during civil war years. He was also a right-hand man to Ahmad Shah Massod, the charismatic commander who led military resistance to the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001. Abdullah has been at loggerheads with Ghani over major administrative reforms and legislation, while avoiding public appearances with him.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Pashtun leader of the Hezb-e-Islami organisation, is also in the fray. He is an ISI-trained former Mujahideen, who was once cultivated by the CIA. Hekmatyar was personally responsible for internecine fighting that tore Afghanistan apart before 9/11. During the civil war period (1992-1996), he earned the nickname “the butcher of Kabul” for his incessant shelling of the city.
After the Taliban’s fall in 2001, Hekmatyar planned terror attacks on the Afghan government forces from his base in Pakistan and was designated as a terrorist. He, surprisingly, returned to Afghanistan in 2016 after a landmark peace agreement with the Ghani government. Hekmatyar has already warned that if voting is not transparent, he would ask his supporters to return to the battlefield.
Former Afghan intelligence chief Ramatullah Nabil is another candidate. Although none of the candidates officially withdrew, some threw their weight behind other candidates. Not a single woman contested.
Ghani’s advisors and supporters argued that since postponement of elections would strengthen the hands of the Taliban, the intra-Afghan talks should be held after a new government is elected. They have been vocal against the marginalisation of the Ghani regime from negotiations to finalise the US-Taliban deal, which is aimed at ensuring smooth withdrawal of American troops in return for the Taliban’s guarantees that it would not allow Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Afghanistan.
If we decode the Taliban’s actions, they have not given any indication that they believe in the democratic process, including elections. Their main objective is to gain access to or share in power. But there should be no doubt about the indispensability of mainstreaming the Taliban for enduring peace in war-ravaged Afghanistan. That is why it makes sense for India to back channel with the Taliban so as to ensure that its commercial and strategic investments in Afghanistan are preserved.
Khalilzad announced that the deal with the Taliban required just a green signal from Trump. The next logical step would have been the setting up of an interim government in which the Taliban would play an important role. A ceasefire and intra-Afghan talks between the representatives of the Taliban and the Kabul regime were the next steps.
But President Donald Trump made a surprise announcement in early September that the imminent deal was “dead” after violent attacks in Kabul killed 12 people, including an American soldier. The cancellation of the talks has dramatically changed the situation.
In order to manage a clear victory, a candidate should secure than 50 percent of votes. If no one gets a majority, the top two candidates face off in a second vote. Those who are banking on these elections to boost their legitimacy would like to avoid such a scenario. Any crisis related to the credibility of election is sure to disrupt chances of getting back to peace talks.
But whatever the outcome of the election, it will not have significant impact on the broader dynamics of US-Taliban talks. Despite his bravado, Trump does not have many options but to restart the peace process sooner than later. Pakistan is already desperate to see Khalilzad returning to negotiate.
Russia’s flirtations with the Taliban and its support for Afghan Opposition figures have been a constant source of tension between the Kremlin and the Ghani regime. Immediately after the deal was called off, a Taliban delegation went to Moscow, where the Russians stressed the need to restart the process. The chief Taliban negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, has already expressed his willingness to resume the talks.
On the other hand, the US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells has clarified that the Trump administration is reviewing “how we get back to a sustainable peace process.” It remains to be seen how Khalilzad persuades the Taliban to come to the negotiating table again. Ironically, it would not matter much to the US and Taliban who will occupy the Afghan presidential palace.
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