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EFSAS Commentary

Afghanistan conundrum: The Afghan people deserve more from all quarters


Most citizens of Afghanistan find themselves confused, even dejected, over the fate that awaits their country as they enter the year 2020. Exhausted by the unending cycle of war and strife, and hoping desperately for the return of the peace and prosperity that has eluded generations of Afghans, yet another major fiasco in yet another highly flawed election has become a harsh reminder for Afghans that their country’s problems run far deeper than just externally-backed anti-government militancy and self-serving foreign intervention. The problems internal to the country, more than half of whose population lives below the poverty line and almost one fourth of whose labour force is unemployed, are equally guilty of contributing to the unenviable circumstances that the average Afghan national finds himself in. The absence of political stability detracts from meaningful national reconstruction efforts, which the betterment of the lot of the Afghans depends on. 

The Afghan presidential elections were held on 28 September last year, and preliminary results were originally due on 19 October. A day prior to this date, and before several other promised deadlines thereafter, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan bemoaned its inability to announce the preliminary results due to allegations of fraud by various candidates, and on account of technical issues. This repeated violation of the electoral calendar diluted the credibility of the electoral process and encouraged the notion of something fishy brewing behind the scenes. For an election in which a mere 1.9 million voters out of a total population of 37 million and registered voters numbering 9.6 million cast their vote, credibility was a questionable factor to begin with. By the time the preliminary results were finally released on 22 December, interest in the process had waned even further amidst skepticism over how the electoral process would actually benefit the average Afghan. 

The nascent democracy in Afghanistan, admittedly, faces several steep hurdles that render its progress difficult. Replacing an essentially tribal political system with an alien one based on unfamiliar principles was never going to be a smooth or quick affair. The diversity of the Afghan people, who identify more closely with their ethnic and religious groups, compounded by the historical suspicion with which each ethnic group eyes the others, makes it even more challenging for democracy to dig in its roots. As if this was not enough, democracy has to contend, head on, with the epitome of anti-democracy in the form of the violent Taliban group, which controls half the territory of Afghanistan and aspires to set up an Islamic Emirate after forcibly wresting control of the other half. The Taliban, through a statement on 26 September, had issued the following warning for the voting day: “We ask fellow countrymen to refrain from venturing out of their homes on this day so that, may Allah forbid, no one is harmed”. They lived up to this warning and killed as many as 28 civilians and wounded another 249 on 28 September. Their warning also kept hundreds of thousands from venturing out to vote, and thereby dented the democratic process. 

The announcement of the preliminary results by the IEC has added to the uncertainty surrounding the electoral process, with political opponents reacting along the expected highly divergent lines. As per the IEC, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani had secured 50.64% of the votes, a clear majority. In a televised speech soon after, Ghani said, “With the announcement, we are moving now from darkness to light and from uncertainty to a bright future. A government worthy of this great nation will be built”

Ghani’s main rival Abdullah Abdullah, who polled 39.52% of the votes, did not share Ghani’s enthusiasm. In a statement his team said, Our people accomplished their role in the September presidential elections and were waiting for the results of their ‘clean’ votes. Unfortunately, those who do not believe in the people’s right to election and for democracy have affected the election’s transparency by committing systematic, widespread fraud which led to a fraudulent announcement of preliminary result”. Feridun Khozon, spokesperson of the Abdullah-led Stability Convergence Election Campaign, added, “The IEC has announced the preliminary results in violation of the Afghan electoral law and therefore the results are not acceptable to Dr. Abdullah and his team. Any option will be used to counter them (the results), and if a crisis arises in such circumstances, the commission and cheaters should be accountable”

The divergent reactions of the two main players reminded observers of the long-running dispute between the same two individuals over the results of the 2014 presidential elections. That instance produced months of political instability and uncertainty. A United States (US)-mediated power sharing arrangement finally broke that deadlock, but it led to its own set of problems in day-to-day governance. 

Other opposition parties and candidates have also cried foul over the 2019 preliminary results. An announcement of the final result could take weeks, even months, to come as the complaints received by the IEC would need to be examined in detail. The UN, which supported the election process, welcomed the preliminary results and urged the election commission to deal “transparently and thoroughly” with all complaints. 

The Taliban, which had opposed the elections and described them as “illegitimate”, stands to gain from the disagreements and wrangling among the political leaders. A clear winner with a robust mandate in a more inclusive election would have made it much more difficult for the Taliban to ignore and run down the new President as a “puppet of the US”, as it presently does. It would also have armed the US better to convince the Taliban to talk directly to the popularly elected Afghan representative. With all the drama that has already surrounded the elections, and with the political opposition casting aspersions on the integrity and fairness of the electoral process, Ghani, if he is finally declared winner, is likely to be ridiculed and demeaned by the Taliban. A tainted result will also considerably dilute the strength of the position from which an Afghan President would ideally like to speak to the Taliban. As former United Nations (UN) Special Envoy Kai Eide put it, a lengthy and potentially violent dispute among the presidential hopefuls would be “the worst possible background for real peace talks”

Meanwhile, the US, which in December last year resumed negotiations with the Taliban after abruptly calling them off in September, appears to remain focused on fulfilling President Trump’s promise of withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The US too would have preferred a more widely accepted President in Afghanistan, as is evident from Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells’ statement that “Recognizing that a majority of Afghans were not able to vote, the eventual winner, whomever that is, must take early and concrete steps to ensure the country’s rich diversity is well reflected in its leadership and its negotiating team”. The setbacks in the electoral process would not only delay the prospect of direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban that the US eventually wants but the Taliban is lukewarm to, but will also frustrate the ongoing US effort to get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire. 

The Taliban has maintained its scale of violent attacks, including directly targeting US interests, as evidenced in the recent suicide bombing outside a hospital building near the Bagram US military base. The attack led to the US momentarily pausing the talks with the Taliban in Doha, and a furious Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan peace talks, tweeting, “When I met the Talibs today, I expressed outrage about yesterday’s attack on Bagram, which recklessly killed two and wounded dozens of civilians. #Taliban must show they are willing & able to respond to Afghan desire for peace”. The Taliban did not appear to take the US anger too seriously, though, and launched a series of attacks since then, including the most recent ones in Kunduz, Balkh and Takhar provinces on New Year’s eve in which at least 28 Afghan troops were killed. 

Pakistan’s role in the violence being showered by the Taliban upon Afghanistan in recent weeks has not been adequately addressed by the US.  As the former senior Pakistani diplomat Touqir Hussain put it, “Pakistan may not have been a party to the Afghan conflict but it has been a part of it. It may not have been part of America’s failure but has certainly been part of the Taliban’s success. This would make Pakistan neither an impartial observer of the war nor an honest peace broker. Pakistan is invested in the future of the conflict and, for better or worse, its conduct matters. Pakistan must think about it carefully. We are not in the 1990s, when Pakistan had the field clear to it after the Soviet withdrawal, and Afghanistan was largely a foreign policy challenge. At long last, Pakistan had a government in Kabul that was friendly. But consider the cost of securing this and what followed; both Pakistan and Afghanistan ended up playing havoc with each other, becoming tributaries and confluences of extremist influences that have radiated well beyond the region. It is not just the US that has failed in Afghanistan”

A clear illustration of Pakistan’s game in Afghanistan came with the killing of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Qari Saifullah Mehsud in Khost province of eastern Afghanistan in December-end. The TTP’s grouse is against Pakistan, unlike the Afghan Taliban that is sheltered and supported by Pakistan, from whose territory it launches marauding attacks against Afghan and US targets in Afghanistan. The ruthless Haqqani network, an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban, is Pakistan’s closest ally in the Taliban ranks. It acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). The TTP, while announcing Qari Saifullah Mehsud’s death in an audio message, asserted that the Haqqani network had carried out the killing. What emerges, therefore, is that Pakistan exercises enough clout and control over the Haqqani network and other Taliban factions to get them to operate violently on the ISI’s behalf in Afghanistan, while it simultaneously repeatedly claims before US and Afghan authorities that it is powerless to stop the Taliban from attacking their interests in Afghanistan.  

The long-suffering Afghan people deserve more. Afghanistan’s political leaders have the huge responsibility of preserving the future for the Afghan people. They need to rise above the politics of division and confrontation in the larger interest of peace and stability. The US, which has been in Afghanistan for 18 long years, must prioritize the long-term interests of the Afghans over a quick exit for its troops. After all, it went into Afghanistan to fight the Al Qaeda and the Taliban. 

As for Pakistan, Touqir Hussain believes that If Pakistan continues to see Afghanistan through a security lens, it will remain stuck with the Taliban. The focus should be on Afghanistan and its people and how Pakistan can help save them from having to choose between the rule of the Taliban and continued conflict… We should not wish Taliban rule over Afghanistan any more than we wish to be ruled by such outfits in Pakistan

The time must come, and soon, that Pakistan is constrained by the US and other players in Afghanistan to change its strategic calculations and behavior and is made to act, not just speak, in the interest of peace in Afghanistan.