THE BLOG

General Elections in Afghanistan - Possible Portents

04/11/2014 05:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2014

It seems to be the season for general elections. The one in Afghanistan has just concluded; the one in India will take nine days of polling to conclude, while the legislative elections in Indonesia have also been initiated. This blog will therefore focus on the presidential elections in Afghanistan and what it portends for that country, for its neighbors, and for the U.S.-led coalition coming to the end of an exhausting war with the Taliban elements. Both sides have battled each other for over 12 years without either side having won or lost.

The first noteworthy and heartening feature of the elections to elect a president in Afghanistan is the fact that it passed off relatively peacefully, notwithstanding Taliban threats to disrupt it. Considering that such an exercise has been conducted only twice before, in 2004 and 2009, both times when Hamid Karzai was elected president, the Afghans can rightly revel in this achievement. Also, unless something really untoward happens, the election will be the precursor of a peaceful transfer of power which is a new phenomenon in modern Afghan history which has had its share of coups and assassinations.

Among the presidential aspirants the three who would be vying for the ultimate prize are reportedly former World Bank technocrat and finance minister Abdul Ghani; Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister under Karzai; and Zalmay Rassoul, another former foreign minister working for Karzai. It is worth recalling that the 2009 election -- which was marred by widespread allegations of fraud -- was intended to be decided in a run-off between Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah. However, the latter withdrew on the grounds that the election process in his view had been irremediably marred by fraud and rigging. It is also worth recalling that the 2009 elections were overseen by the United Nations (UN) representatives in Kabul. Peter Galbraith, the second senior official and a former American ambassador, fell out with his chief Kai Ede from Norway over the conduct of the elections. Galbraith felt strongly that the elections had been rigged in favor of the incumbent, Karzai. His superior, Kai Ede, felt differently and did not want to upset the apple cart of the elections. The spat between the two was decided apparently by the UN Secretary General who fired Galbraith from his position. So none of the 2009 drama fortunately informed the current election which was run by the Afghan Election Commission reasonably smoothly. Following a couple of Taliban attacks prior to the election only a few foreign monitors were present. However, this deficiency was reportedly made up by a large number of Afghan monitors who had undergone training over the previous years to supervise an event of this nature.

Given the rugged nature of the Afghan topography, it will take some time for all the votes to be counted and for other formalities to be completed. The difficulties of doing this was made clear in photographs showing ballot boxes being dispatched to the remote regions of Afghanistan on the backs of donkeys. Another hopeful augury for Afghanistan's future is the encouraging participation of Afghan women in the electoral process. According to the statistics compiled so far, around 60 percent of the eligible Afghan voters cast their votes. This is a much larger number compared to the two previous turnouts. Also, quite encouraging was the fact that the Afghan security forces were able to keep the Taliban at bay. It has been reported that the latter could not mount any attacks on election day as a show of strength. I am not sure whether the Taliban backed off as a part of some future strategy as previously they had shown an alarming propensity to attack sensitive installations even in the heart of Kabul. It would be premature to write off the power and influence of the Taliban especially in the South and East of this country of 25 million.

One definite positive feature of the election from the U.S. point of view is that apparently all the major candidates have expressed support for signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States government. The Obama Administration was deeply frustrated by the inability of Karzai to sign the BSA under which around 10,000 U.S. soldiers would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Perhaps this number will be supplemented by some coalition soldiers. These troops would advise the Afghan National Army (ANA) and not engage in direct combat. The other important effect if the BSA is signed by the incoming Afghan president would ensure continued foreign aid to Afghanistan. Experts on Afghanistan feel that without this continuing financial and military assistance the Afghan government in Kabul would collapse leading to chaotic conditions in the country.

Whoever succeeds Karzai as president would be well advised to continue the process of negotiations -- which has been an on-and-off affair between Karzai, the Americans, and the Taliban. The Taliban are not just going to fade away. On the contrary, they are likely, as the spring snows melt, to launch a major military offensive to test the mettle of the wobbly ANA. Their strategy will be to decouple the Pashtun elements within the ANA on grounds of ethnic solidarity with the Pashtun Taliban. If this happens, it would considerably weaken the ANA in the sense that the largest ethnic group (the Pashtuns) would no longer be represented in it. Therefore, the ability of the ANA to stand up to the Taliban would be a major question mark in the future unfolding of events. The last thing Afghanistan needs, which has been torn apart by three decades of continuous warfare, is more civil war which can only add to the daily miseries faced by the ordinary Afghan.