Originally Published 2013-11-16 09:10:30 Published on Nov 16, 2013
We need to look beyond the Presidential vote in Afghanistan, scheduled for next April. These elections would not only test equations of military and political power as the NATO forces pull out but also the strength and possibility of deeper enduring facts of the Afghan reality.
Decoding the Afghan elections
"Presidential elections in Afghanistan are scheduled for 5th April 2014. For the third time, Afghans would vote to elect someone to take charge of the fragile Afghan State in the shadow of the impending withdrawal of American and other NATO troops by December 2014. That would mark an unprecedented transition for the polity and political-economy Americans helped craft post 9/11. The Pushto-Darri term ’Inteqaal’ (transition) alludes neatly to the enigmatic elements implicit in the withdrawal almost set to begin. The foremost compelling challenge would be for the Afghan national troops to hold the military line against an emboldened battle hardened Taliban. And that holding operation would have to rely on the support of an economy decisively dependent on foreign aid. Given the nature of cross border reverberations across the Durand line, the impending Inteqaal is fraught with possibilities of an extreme kind.

The transition about to begin in Kabul also presents a different kind of opportunity to engage afresh with the complex challenges shaped by many decades of violent conflict and foreign intervention. Much would depend on the international community’s will to keep its pledge of continued financial support through the uncertain years of transition. The transition would also test New Delhi’s imagination and effectiveness in being able to engage with a diverse set of political leaders across fluid political lines. Specifically, Inteqaal would put to severe test New Delhi’s skill and strategic will to support the Afghan state and security institutions. As for the West, disengagement from active combat in Afghanistan could soothe nerves in Rawalpindi and Tehran. Finally, Washington’s recent overtures to Tehran could trigger a new regional dynamics and reshape the transition process.

Nomination process for the elections came to a close on 6th October. Twenty-seven candidates have entered the fray. Political battle lines for a bid to the Arg have been drawn. Seemingly unusual political alliances have come to the fore. Perhaps the most perplexing of these is signified by the academic turned politician Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai’s decision to have General Abdul Rashid Dostum as his first vice President. The speculation is that he hopes to corner thereby sizeable number of Uzbek votes. Notably, Dostum after his nomination in an unprecedented move apologized to the Afghan people: "...who were sacrificed due to our policies". No one can say with certainty whether Dostum’s apology is genuine or an opportunistic move to wash off stains from a past he would now want forgotten to make him politically palatable. The apology nevertheless signals a certain new kind of maturity and restraint in the country’s political process.

That kind of maturity, significant in the long duration, does not mitigate in the slightest the formidable challenge Ashraf Ghani faces. Consider just a minor incidental detail: Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is pitted against his brother Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai. The number of possible combinations and balancing equations in this multi-cornered contest strung along several rainbow coalitions is truly staggering. Few had expected Dr. Ghani, who enjoys that rare privilege in Afghan politics of a clean image with impeccable academic credentials, of allying with a political player whose role in the bloody conflict of the 1990’s still rankles. Given Dostum’s key political demand that the Constitution be amended to allow for a system of de-centralised governance in place of the centralised unitary state system currently in place, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah should have been his first logical choice.

Instead, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister and a close aide of Ahmad Shah Masood, has teamed up with Muhammad Khan from the legal faction of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami. The two sides fought pitched battles in the 1990’s and in the process brutally destroyed much of Kabul, killing and injuring thousands of civilians. Dr. Abdullah is a typical example of one, of whom Afghans would speak of as du-raga, literally the two veined. His patrilineal descent is Pashtun and his matrilineal descent is Tajik. Upon that accrues his potential to mobilise sizeable support in two key constituencies. Completing the troika here is Muhammad Mohaqiq, an ethnic Hazara, as the second vice-Presidential nominee. Significantly, the late Ahmad Shah Masood’s brother has cast his lot with the other presidential hopeful Zalmai Rasoul, Karzai’s trusted Foreign Minister; widely speculated to be Karzai’s preferred choice to occupy the Arg. Rasoul’s second vice-Presidential nominee is not only a Hazara, but also a woman, Habiba Surobi. She has served as Governor of Bamian province. Rasoul has also taken care to establish good working relations with most major western capitals.

Another notable contender in the race is Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf, an ethnic Pashtun from Paghman and a well-known Salafist. Sayyaf enjoys an excellent line to the Arab world, particularly Riyadh. And that has been crucial for ensuring his political clout. On the ground in Afghanistan, even when the jihad was at its feverish peak, Sayyaf’s forces were regarded as too small to count. Among Kabul’s international backers, Sayyaf’s adherence to Salafist Islam would be a complicating factor were he to make it to the Arg. He has got on board Ismail Khan, the strongman from Herat as his vice-presidential nominee. Other Presidential hopefuls include: Gul Agha Sherzai, a Barakzai Pashtun from Kandahar, who has served as Governor of Kandahar and Nangarhar; former defence minster Abdul Rahim Wardak; President Karzai’s brother Qayum Karzai who has roped in former Minster for Mines Wahidullah Shahrani an ethnic Uzbek, as his first Vice presidential nominee.

Which of these political formations will steal the march is anybody’s guess. However, the emerging political landscape does hold some crucial clues. Consider for instance the large sweeping fact that Afghanistan for the first time in its history appears poised for a political transition through the ballot box. None of the previous Afghan Presidents since 1973 completed their tenure. Karzai is the first one to complete two consecutive terms in office. Grave flaws of the Afghan political process notwithstanding, the simple fact that the nascent Afghan polity is preparing to elect its President for the third time running signifies something significant and exceptional. Notably, even neighbouring Pakistan has taken more than six decades to reach that stage.

Second, the socially heterogeneous composition of political alliances speaks of certain cardinal shifts on the ground. It is easy for sceptics from a distance to dismiss these alliances as purely opportunistic; cynical mobilisation to capture the ultimate prize of political supremacy. Cynicism and opportunism is certainly in play but along with that we need to take note of the grave fact that leaders who fought pitched battles in the past against each other are attempting to work together within a common political framework. That indicates perhaps a small crucial step towards a slow maturity of the political process. Even if one were to concede that these alliances are born entirely of political opportunism, one would still need to account for and explain the kind of support that some of these leaders command in their constituencies.

A large crucial fact that merits strong note and sensitive attention is that political alliances have not followed the neat simplistic "ethnic logic" of the kind often projected as the eternal fact of Afghan social political life. Analytical comments on Afghanistan tend invariably to speak of the conflict in Afghanistan as Pashtuns arrayed in acute unrelenting hostility against the non-Pashtuns. The unfolding elections should make us all pause and rethink the truth and wisdom of such conventional binary oppositions. In fact, it is difficult to meaningfully talk in terms of straightjacketed constituencies of ’ Pushtuns’ or ’ Tajiks’, or for that matter even Hazaras.

In the long duration, the kind of recent shifts and changes in the political process taking place bode well for Afghans. Foremost, it would encourage politicians to build support cutting across ethnic constituencies. Externally, for the foreign policy of leading nation states particularly in the Afghan neighbourhood, it could make possible sober engagement with leaders across the political spectrum rather than remain confined to certain ethno-political factions; the invariable pattern in the past.

Finally, the fact that the electoral process continues to attract large active participation of social groups, most notably the Uzbeks and Hazaras who in the past had remained confined to the margins, is enormously significant. It is an indication of their continued faith in an open political system despite its many flaws and distortions. Further, such participation is also reflective of a social transformation engendered by the long years of conflict and the democratic experiment of recent years. It is an apt moment to also take firm political note of the social heterogeneity characteristic of Afghanistan. Also noteworthy in this respect has been the impact of this process on the transformation of the concept of legitimacy itself. Traditionally vested with the Muhammadzai branch of the Durrani Pashtun’s who comprised the ruling line for nearly 200 years. Testimony to this has been the minimal interest generated by candidature of Mohammad Nadir Naeem, nephew of former President Daud Khan.

We need to look beyond the Presidential vote scheduled for 5th April 2014. These elections would not only test equations of military and political power as the NATO forces pull out of Afghanistan, but also the strength and possibility of deeper enduring facts of the Afghan reality.

(The author is with the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt, Germany)

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