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30 March 2014, Gateway House

Afghanistan: At a turning point

The presidential election is vital not only for Afghanistan’s future but also for the stability of the region. The ensuing race has thrown up candidates from various ethnicities and they face an uphill task with a resurgent Taliban and a former President who still hopes to be a force in the political arena

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The elections in Afghanistan mark a political transition from the Karzai era – Karzai who has led the country after the Taliban were ousted in November 2001 is constitutionally barred from contesting for a third term. An election that is accepted by the Afghan people and the international community as credible is vital not only for Afghanistan’s future but also the well being of the region.

A successful political transition is crucial to the management of the security and economic transitions that are underway in the country. The former will be completed by the year end while the latter will go on for many years. An elected President who commands allegiance on a multi-ethnic basis is essential for the coherence of the Afghan central authority. It is obvious that if that authority frays, the Afghan forces will not be able to withstand the Taliban onslaught which will undoubtedly come with greater vigour with the drawdown of NATO troops.

In the uncertainty that has prevailed, and which has been exacerbated by Karzai’s hostility towards the U.S. since the past few years, the Afghan economy has contracted. A flight of capital has occurred, property prices have gone down, and the services sector rudimentary as it is has suffered from reduced NATO spending because of declining force levels. The new President will have to instil confidence in the Afghan people and the donors to revive the economy.

Will the election process be able to deliver a credible election? And will the election be able to throw up a President who will be able to confront the formidable challenges that enmesh the country? For that our attention must focus on the candidates, the complex ethnic dynamics and the Afghan capacity to conduct a successful election.

Eight presidential candidates remain in the fray. Each has, as the constitution mandates, two running mates for the posts of the first and the second vice-presidents. All the candidates are Pashtuns though Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, whose father was a Pashtun and mother a Panjshiri Tajik, is perceived to be a non-Pashtun. This is because of his association with the legendary Afghan jihadi leader Ahmad Shah Masood who was a Panjshiri Tajik.

The candidates represent almost the entire spectrum of Afghan political life. Abdul Rab Rasul Sayaf is one of the seven Pakistan-based leaders of the anti-Soviet jihad and follows the Wahhabi doctrine. Gul Agha Sherzai is a jihadi commander with roots in Kandahar. He acquired power through strong, even brutal, means. None of them  has a realistic chance of success. Nor do Hedayat Amin Arsala, a royalist, Sultanzoi, a technocrat and Qutbudin Hilal who has ties with Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. The three leading candidates are Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rasul.

Abdullah, 54, is a professional eye surgeon. He joined Ahmed Shah Masood in the 1980s and became a close aide. Well read, articulate, and with great organisational abilities Abdullah skilfully interacted with the international community on behalf of the Rabbani government. He served as Karzai’s foreign minister with distinction but had an increasingly uneasy relationship with him. He left the cabinet in 2005 and stood for the presidential elections in 2009. He secured the second highest number of votes, but stood down during the run-off which was constitutionally required as no candidate, including Karzai, got 50% of the vote needed to be declared as the winner in the first round. In the last five years Abdullah has built all-round grassroots support and is regarded as head of the pack at this stage.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, 65, is an anthropologist by training and has taught in leading U.S. universities, worked with the World Bank, and is very well connected in the West. He was the finance minister till 2004 and contributed to obtaining donor support in a sustained and planned manner. He stood as a minor candidate in the 2009 election. He has always had a difficult relationship with Karzai. He has generated considerable support among the Pashtuns and is believed to be favoured by Western countries.

Zalmai Rasul, 72, is a medical doctor. Suave and soft spoken, Rasul worked as secretary to the former King of Afghanistan Zahir Shah during his stay in Rome. He worked on political projects to end the civil conflict in Afghanistan during the 1990s. He joined Karzai in November 2001 and has stood by him all through. He has Karzai’s informal support for his candidacy – Karzai’s brother, Qayum, recently stepped down as a candidate in his favour.

The Pashtuns who constitute a plurality have been the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan since the present state was created  in 1747. They are determined to retain their political supremacy. The other major groups are the Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Hazaras. Their participation in the anti-Soviet jihad, and the formation of armed ethnic militias under their own leadership, has whetted their demand for equal political power but they are yet to decisively push for it. The Pashtuns seek to co-opt them and this is illustrated in the tickets. Each Pushtoon candidate has important figures of two of the other groups.

The ethnic groups do not entirely vote as a block. There are major intra-ethnic rivalries. However should the election go, as is likely, to a second round with Dr. Abdullah as a candidate in the run-off it is probable that the Pashtuns would rally round his opponent in significant numbers.

The two previous presidential elections were conducted despite great difficulties and finally yielded acceptable results. So did the parliamentary elections. The Taliban had boycotted all previous elections and resorted to violence as they are doing on this occasion too. A series of terrorist attacks have been carried out with the aim to prevent voters from casting their votes. Despite all the challenges the Afghan Election Commission should be able to manage to deliver a credible, though not perfect, election.

The leading candidates’ agenda may differ in detail but all articulate a forward looking position rooted in the vision of economic betterment, greater gender equality and democracy. This is in complete contrast to the Taliban’s desire to take Afghanistan back to the Middle Ages, notwithstanding their own attempts, and those of their Pakistani patrons to burnish their image.

Over the past decade President Karzai has manipulated the political process with great skill, working the divisions among political actors to his advantage. He now wants to manoeuvre Abdullah to abandon his quest in Zalmai Rasul’s favour to be accommodated later, after a major constitutional amendment, with a Prime Minister’s position. Abdullah has refused to take the bait. Will Karzai succeed in putting Zalmai Rasul in the President’s chair?  That remains uncertain. Marshal Fahim the first Vice-President’s death in March has made the process more fluid.

Vivek Katju has served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Myanmar and Thailand. He was one of India’s chief negotiators during the hijack of Indian Airlines flight 814 in 1999 at Kandahar in Afghanistan, when he headed the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran desk at the MEA.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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