Eleven candidates have been registered for the presidential elections set to take place in Afghanistan in April. They fall into two major groups: technocrats and warlords. The first have vision as to what has to be done in Afghanistan while the second camp has influence and connections that will make it possible to take the necessary steps. However, should unfavourable developments coincide, Afghanistan could simply fall apart following these elections.
The fight against Al-Qaeda and their local hosts the Taliban began very successfully for the allies in 2001, and after only a couple of months, the adversary was on the ropes. But 2003 saw the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, which exerted a massive drain on resources and was considered a higher priority for the US-led coalition than the operation in Afghanistan. The slow, wavering pace of reconstruction in Afghanistan and the efforts of the Taliban, from exile in Pakistan, to regain military power have resulted in a rapid growth of insurgency since 2005-2006.
When Barack Obama became president in 2009, the US adopted a policy aimed at exiting the war in Afghanistan. The new administration decided it was time to focus on strengthening Afghanistan state structures to an extent that would permit the coalition forces to leave and hand over security responsibilities to Afghans. The US deployed an additional 30,000 personnel in Afghanistan in 2010-2012 to drive back the insurgents and facilitate the withdrawal. It took ISAF troop numbers to their highest level of the whole war with over 130,000 coalition troops operating across the country.
But as military history has taught on so many occasions, not even the most detailed and thought-through plans guarantee success, and the adversary rarely if ever goes away quietly. The troop surge helped to clear considerable areas of insurgents, but did not break their resistance. Nor has the Taliban thus far shown serious interest in peace talks. Last year, when the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) took over security responsibility for the entire country’s territory, insurgents responded with a very high level of violence that led to higher losses on both sides and more civilian deaths than in previous years.
Furthermore, Afghanistan’s economy grew in average by 9.4 percent a year in 2003-2012, but only by 3.1 percent in 2013. Under favourable circumstances, at least a decade will be needed before the country achieves economic sustainability. The weak economy means that ANSF will be financed mainly from foreign aid and Afghans will need Western support for many long years if they are to maintain a reasonable level of security.
Afghanistan’s political system is characterized by a central/dominant role of the president and weak, still emergent institutions. Put that kind of a system in a deeply fragmented and poor society with high level of corruption and 25% literacy rate, and it becomes evident that whereas the country may be nominally democratic, it operates according to a different logic.
Elections are a telling example of how such a fledgling country functions. The four elections held in the last 10 years have shown that the Afghan electorate’s decisions are not easy to predict or understand. Afghanistan Analysts Network researchers have shown that elections are seen as a way of bettering one’s position in society both individually and collectively. Undoubtedly, the best result would be to attain top office through presidential elections, but not all candidates have realistic hopes of doing so. Therefore, a presidential bid is also used to pave the way to the parliament, or to benefit from bowing out in favour of more influential and powerful candidates.1
According to analyst Martine van Bijlert, the key structures for getting out the vote in Afghanistan are communities, tribes, various networks, trade unions, and the like. Many Afghans expect voting guidance from the leaders of these structures. Only if a community lacks its “own” candidate will its members try to independently appraise views and promises of various candidates. Votes are cast based on a complicated calculation where community leaders evaluate the personal and collective benefits from voting a certain way as well as the strength of the opposing candidates and competing communities. The communities’ representatives often attend election events for multiple candidates and declare their support for more than one candidate at a time, which makes it difficult to gauge actual support for a given candidate.2
Extensive fraud has taken place in Afghan elections. Over a million ballots were disqualified both in the 2009 presidential and the 2010 parliamentary elections. The lack of a central voters’ registry has resulted in excessive voter cards being issued. In 2004, 10.4 million voter cards were issued for 10 million voters, and in 2009, 17 million cards had been issued. By last count, 20 million cards are in circulation, which is nearly double the number of voters. Election fraud has been committed in the process of vote-counting, and evaluation and disqualification of candidates. Ballot boxes have been stuffed in areas where no one voted due to insurgent activity, and there are other examples. Often the local authorities decided which candidates were the ones to be supported.
This, then, is the backdrop for the presidential and provincial council elections taking place once again in early April. Their importance to Afghanistan is very great, with the progression of events in several fields coming to a critical point. President Karzai himself appears to have decided not to sign the bilateral US-Afghanistan security accord, leaving this duty to his successor. If this agreement founders, the US and NATO forces will leave Afghanistan in 2014 and a large part of the financial aid will be cut off. That would mean a sudden worsening in security for an economically unsustainable country, a very serious economic crisis and political instability. In the worst case, Afghanistan could simply fall apart. Due to President Karzai’s behaviour, US Congress already cut this year’s aid to Afghanistan to 1.1 billion dollars, which is half of what the government asked for.
It should be borne in mind that if serious fraud emerges in Pashtun areas where rebels have major influence, the leaders of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara could refuse to honour the election results. This in turn could lead to armed clashes with the Pashtun, as the former Northern Alliance commanders and politicians have gone some way to restoring their armed structures.
Eleven candidates are registered for presidential elections, and the Brookings Institution researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown says they could be categorized as either technocrats or warlords.3 The first have a clearer, deeper understanding of what should be done in Afghanistan. The others are less visionaries, but they have the influence and connections to implement changes and reforms.
Examples of technocrats who have pro-Western views are Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Dr Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul. Perhaps the most colourful exemplar of the warlords is a former mujahedeen leader who once fought the Soviets, conservative Islamic cleric Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf. He also had very close ties with Al-Qaeda and was the mentor of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, World Trade centre attack plotter.
All presidential candidates recognize clearly that Afghanistan needs foreign aid, support the signing of the bilateral security agreement with the US and are prepared to accept a small Western contingent of forces. In other matters, their views are not as clear. This is not surprising, as considering the election landscape described above and the inevitable need for building up support through various deals, no one wants to rule anything out for certain.
To win, the technocrats need support of warlords, yet if they went too far in their concessions they would risk losing the trust of the West. Efforts are also gaining strength to win the Pashtun vote and Dr Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul are both seeking Qayum Karzai’s support – meaning that Karzai pull out of the race and endorse one of them.4 President Karzai has thus far refrained from endorsing any specific candidate but it is believed that he supports Zalmai Rassoul, Dr Ashraf Ghani and his brother Qayum Karzai.
All in all, Afghanistan is going into a very complicated election, with the country’s future in the balance and a high risk of election fraud. Insurgents add to the uncertainty. If any of the candidates should die during the voting or before election results are announced, Article 61 of Afghanistan’s Constitution requires that new elections be held. In the interregnum, President Karzai would remain at the helm and in such a case, nothing is granted.
The hope that Afghanistan will come through this challenge and remain stable in the near future is encouraged by the fact that a considerable part of Afghanistan’s political elite and population realizes how weak the country is and that it needs continued foreign aid.
1 Martine van Bijlert. How to Win an Afghan Election? Perceptions and Practices. AAN Thematic Report 02/2009. pp.9-10.
2 Ibid. pp.12-19.
3 David Kashi. Afghan Presidential Election 2014: Why Pro-Western Candidates May Not Align With US Interest. International Business Times. 14.02.2014.
4 While this article was prepared for web publication, Qayum Karzai withdrew from the presidential race in favour of Zalmai Rassoul (Emma Graham-Harrison. Afghan president’s brother withdraws from election race. The Guardian. 06.03.2014).