Afghanistan's Murky Choice

The first round of voting in the presidential election is over, but the outcome is far from decided.

he euphoria over Afghanistan’s April 5 elections has begun to evaporate amid allegations of widespread electoral fraud. This weekend’s partial result indicated no clear winner. The two front-runners—Abdullah Abdullah, a leader of the old Northern alliance and ex-foreign minister, with 41.9 percent of the vote, and Ashraf Ghani, ex-finance minister, with 37.6 percent—might head for a run-off. The tally was based on half a million ballots of the estimated seven million that were cast. 

Abdullah’s leading role signals that the initial announcement was politically motivated. It has to be viewed as a warning that the political elite or the old Northern Alliance—propelled to power after the United States defeated the Taliban in 2001—will continue to rule Afghanistan. Afghan observers blame the outgoing President Hamid Karzai and his allies for horse trading behind the partial result. The partial result also may be calculated to address the demands of Abdullah Abdullah’s powerful supporters, who threatened that in case Abdullah isn’t the ultimate winner, Afghanistan could be awash with new waves of bloodshed.

Afghanistan’s ground realities and political history suggest that if a runoff takes place or a backstage deal wins Abdullah the presidency; he is unable to deliver. He is a man with a history. He was actively involved in the Afghan civil war (1992-1995). Following the fall of the Russian-installed communist regime in an internal coup in 1992, the Northern Alliance and its proxies ruled Afghanistan for almost four years, leaving a dark legacy of gross human-rights violations, rape, and looting. Fighting between the Northern Alliance—with Abdullah as one of its key advisers—and its radical Islamic rivals (led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), devastated the Afghan capital even before the Taliban came. More than fifty thousand civilians were killed in the civil war.

The American military intervention in 2001 in Afghanistan was something of a lottery for the new political elites and Abdullah Abdullah, who’s shown a fondness for bespoke European suits allegedly worth several years of an average Afghan’s income. He served as foreign minister in Karzai’s regime (2001-2005) and filled the ministry from top to bottom with his own fellow Panjshiris. Panjshir is a provincial district, though the NA and Karzai elevated it to the rank of a province in recent years, his birthplace. With strong bonds with Karzai’s family, Abdullah and other warlords of the NA created a multi-billion dollar mafia that dominates the economy and politics in Afghanistan.

An Abdullah presidency would be a gift for the Taliban, which already benefits from the growing marginalisation and disenfranchisement of the Pashtuns south and east. Seen as a radical sectarian among Pashtuns, Abdullah will deepen ethnic division just as the international community is shrinking its financial support once foreign troops leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The domination Northern Alliance in Afghanistan has powerful implications for Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as well. He will be an outsider within an exceptionally corrupt government centered around the NA. In his campaign, Ghani said that when he was the finance minister, he refused the demand of the warlords of the NA to pay for an imaginary seven-hundred-thousand-man defense force. He continued to reject such extortionist demands despite real threats to his life when warlords surrounded his ministry with tanks and armoured vehicles.

Ghani has the potential to be Afghanistan’s version of former Czech president Válcav Havel, who played a decisive role in post-Communist era of his country, but it would be too hard for him to overcome the endemic corruption, nepotism and drug syndicates linked to the country’s power elites. He doesn’t have the skills of Karzai to work as a puppet for the NA. However, Ghani as the president of Afghanistan could weaken the Taliban and their grip on the Pashtuns. In the event of strong Pashtun support behind Ghani, the Taliban might soften its stance and become willing to participate in negotiation and reconciliation.

This is crucial for the future of Afghanistan, as America and its NATO partners, in thirteen years of war, have failed to either defeat the Taliban or bring them into effective negotiations. They also failed to target the Pakistani military for actively abetting insurgents killing the Western troops and Afghans. Pakistan remains the Taliban’s enabler, and its role in Afghanistan makes it a mortal threat to peace. One major factor in these failures has been the amorphous vision of the international community vis-à-vis Afghanistan that has helped undercut the Afghan internal dynamics.

By all indications, the present phase of the Afghan presidential election is in a troubled state. The final results are to be declared in mid-May once thousands of complaints of fraud are fully investigated. Hot conspiracy theories in Kabul suggest that at the last minute, the Embassy of the United States in Kabul will cherry-pick the new president. Uncertainties looms and the anxiety is that like in the past, the election would be used to rubber-stamp the control of someone acceptable to the power brokers.

Ehsan Azari Stanizai is an Adjunct Fellow with Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney.

Image: Flickr/The U.S. Army/CC by 2.0