The terrible assassination of Kandahar’s top security leadership in a Taliban-engineered terror attack has underlined the growing challenge Afghanistan faces ahead of the much-delayed parliamentary elections scheduled on 20 October. Although the top American commander in Afghanistan narrowly escaped injury, General Abdul Raziq, the powerful police chief of Kandahar, and provincial intelligence chief, Abdul Mohmin, were not so lucky when a bodyguard opened fire after a meeting.
Besides leaving a power vacuum in Kandahar ahead of crucial elections, the killings only underscore the level of confidence the Taliban has acquired after the Ghazni terror attack in August this year. Though it is too early to say anything with certainty how the attack would affect moves towards a nascent peace process, there is no doubt that it would further complicate the situation. Moreover, the unfortunate incident has only raised the stakes for the Ashraf Ghani-led government to conduct nationwide parliamentary elections which are being seen as a litmus test of the government’s credibility amidst the Taliban’s brutal campaign to intimidate the voters and dissuade them from casting their ballots.
This is Afghanistan’s third parliamentary elections since 2004. There are over 2,500 candidates competing for 250 seats in the lower house, known as the Wolesi Jirga. Campaigning had started in September and the results are likely to come out after mid-November. After filtering out 600,000 unqualified voters, the Independent Election Commission has announced 8.8 million people as eligible to vote. It needs to be mentioned that elections were originally scheduled for 2015 but were repeatedly delayed due to the inability of the government to implement key electoral reforms. Because of this failure and infighting within the National Unity Government, the elections and their aftermath are likely to complicate the presidential elections set for April 2019. There is a strong apprehension of the losing candidates contesting the electoral outcome, while the country remains at war.
Security is the biggest challenge as demonstrated by the Kandahar assassinations. Despite 17 years of war efforts, the Taliban remains a dangerous insurgent force. In fact, they have only strengthened their ability to challenge the Afghan security forces for control of key territories, particularly in the rural hinterland. Regardless of how much support it gets from the US, the Afghan government is not capable of defeating the Taliban insurgency and taking back the territory currently held by it. Without American firepower, the Afghan security forces will collapse immediately, and the US troops cannot remain in Afghanistan forever.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the polling by launching terror attacks and have denounced the elections as a Western-backed charade designed to perpetuate a puppet government. The Taliban killed 22 Afghan officials in two provinces a few days ago. The Islamic State-Khorasan also poses a challenge, as manifested by the killing of 35 people on 2 October in an election rally attack in Nangarhar province. Due to the highly unstable security scenario, only 5,000 polling booths would be opened for voting across the country instead of more than 7,000 polling booths. Ghazni, which briefly fell to the Taliban in August, will not be going to polls due to various problems including a volatile security situation. Besides, there have been several concerns regarding equal representation, as reflected in the demand for demarcation of constituencies for ensuring a balanced electorate. Lawmakers elected from Ghazni in 2010 will retain their seats until the province goes to polls in April next year. Now voting in Kandahar has also been delayed by a week. Whatever the reasons of postponement, the failure to hold voting in Ghazni and elsewhere is an undeclared admission of failure on the part of the government.
The first-ever district level elections were also supposed to be held simultaneously with the parliamentary polls. These elections are aimed at devolving power to the local level, especially given the government’s fragile hold over the countryside, where the majority of the population follows informal governance structures. But the shortage of candidates forced the election commission to delay the election process until the presidential contest in April 2019. It is likely that high illiteracy and fear of violence prevented candidates to run for district seats.
Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity also increases the challenge associated with elections. At more than 40 percent of the Afghan population, the Pashtuns account for the largest and the most dominant ethnic group in the country. But they are outnumbered by the non-Pashtun groups of Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. The Pashtuns favour a centralised form of government under a strong president holding a powerful position. On the other hand, the non-Pashtuns are in favour of a federalised model in which a prime minister is elected by the parliament. As this system keeps a check on presidential powers, the Pashtuns fear the decentralisation model will erode their power, while enabling regional powers to have greater say in domestic politics.
Elections can be the basis of political stability, but only if they work well. A flawed voting system cannot be a source of stability and legitimacy. The process of electoral reforms gained momentum after widespread allegations of fraud characterised the 2014 presidential contest between Ghani and Abdullah. Ultimately, Washington was forced to intervene in order to broker a compromise agreement. However, it also led to demands of changes designed to reduce electoral frauds and malpractices in future. Despite the passage of a new electoral law, the changes are still incomplete due to lack of political consensus, intergovernmental quarrels as well as logistical challenges of carrying out the huge task.
These elections have already been dogged by other serious technical and organisational problems, notably around the use of untested biometric voter verification equipment rushed in after allegations of widespread voter fraud. In May this year, Ghani attempted to begin the move to electronic voting IDs, which ran into trouble due to the bitterly fractious nature of Afghan politics. At the root of the controversy was a long-standing dispute about nationality and ethnicity. The Afghan CEO Abdullah criticised the move, saying it was illegitimate in part because the ID cards used the term “Afghan”, which is considered synonymous with “Pashtun”.
Elections are meant to give representation to the people so that they can resolve their differences through a well-structured and non-violent mechanism. But like in all poor third world countries and in conflict zones where elections are viewed as a zero-sum game, Afghan politicians increasingly tend to regard their electoral defeat as losing access to scarce resources. The result is an agonisingly incremental progress in electoral reforms in Afghanistan.
But most importantly, the primary responsibility for vitiating the entire electoral process must be unmistakably put on the Taliban, which has called on voters and candidates to boycott the elections, saying it will target more than 50,000 Afghan security forces deployed for polling. As rightly pointed by Amrullah Saleh, former Afghan intelligence chief, the Ghani government has not been able to tackle terror emanating from Pakistan because it never adopted a consistent approach to the problem. During an interaction at the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi on 17 October, he asked: “If Pakistan has launched an undeclared war on us, what’s our response? Have we created a debate in the UN Security Council about the role of the Pakistan Army in terror attacks in my country? No.” He argued, “We all know Pakistan has launched an undeclared war on Afghanistan but our response is neither politically proportionate to what they have done to us, nor militarily or otherwise.” Accusing Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of having a direct link in supporting the Taliban, who have their “ideological headquarters” in Pakistan, Saleh asserted, “As long as we do not acknowledge the existence of that ideological headquarters, they will be active. We are fighting the Taliban today with the assumption that Pakistan will never dismantle the ideological headquarters of the Taliban, it’s a deterrence which is very cheap for Pakistan.”
The US claims that it has not seen decisive action by Pakistan’s security establishment against terrorists operating from its soil. Henry Ensher, deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, speaking recently at Wilson Center, said “We have seen some action but we have not seen the decisive steps from Pakistan that could demonstrate commitment, ensuring their territory cannot be used by the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other groups that are so violent and bring instability in the region.” It is therefore important for the Trump administration to ensure that Taliban’s ideological headquarters in Pakistan is dismantled and Rawalpindi is rendered incapable to assert its primacy in Afghan affairs. Pakistan cannot be expected to change course as long as it does not feel the pain for its misdeeds in Afghanistan. Washington can go easy on Pakistan at its own peril.
Updated Date: Oct 19, 2018 19:38 PM