Despite the specter of the Taliban regime, the Afghan state built by the West is engaging in a democratic exercise with enthusiasm. In fact, the 2014 presidential election campaign has been the most vibrant one since the first vote took place a decade ago. The reason for this enthusiasm is that the country is headed to the polls to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who has been the country's head of state since the United States toppled the Taliban regime a few months after the 9/11 attacks. In other words, Afghanistan is going through its first ever attempt at a democratic transfer of power.
Three candidates have emerged as the front-runners: former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and another ex-foreign minister and national security adviser, Zalmay Rassoul. While Rassoul is believed to be Karzai's preference and thus allegedly has the support of the Afghan establishment, the polls show Ahmadzai in the lead, followed by Abdullah. Unlike the previous two presidential races in which the incumbent had a decisive edge over his challengers, this time there is a semblance of parity, which is actually of concern.
Since polls in a country like Afghanistan are not reliable, and there are fears of electoral fraud (which is probable based on past elections), whoever loses will probably reject the results. This is especially the case for those who see this as a rare opportunity to dislodge the current ruling elite surrounding Karzai and feel that the presidency is within their grasp. Considering how Afghan political disputes can transform into armed clashes and how the fear that security forces could divide along partisan lines, such a scenario could prove catastrophic, particularly since the state is already trying to deal with the Taliban insurgency.
Notably, Afghanistan has been in this situation before. The anti-communist Islamist insurgent groups' inability to share power in the transitional government after the fall of the Marxist regime in 1992 led to a long and bloody civil war that gave rise to the Taliban movement.
The risk of a controversy over the election is further increased by the daunting logistics of the process, which is likely to play out over several months. Because of security issues, a significant percentage of the electorate may not be able to cast their ballots. After the ballots close, vote counting will take place over a period of two weeks.
Preliminary results are expected April 24, while the election commission will address complaints about irregularities from April 7 to April 27. Final results are due to be announced May 14. It is unlikely that any one candidate will achieve the 50 percent threshold to avoid a run-off, which has been scheduled for May 28.
Assuming the process goes largely unhampered, the next president will not take office until sometime after June. This entire election will take place at a time when the Taliban insurgency will be in the highly active phase of its annual cycle. And this year is the most critical for the jihadist rebels.
An Opportunity for the Taliban
The leadership transition as NATO forces finalize their drawdown represents a unique opportunity for Afghan jihadists to exploit the opening in the system and try to undermine it. The Taliban are trying to pull together the biggest offensive since the insurgency began 12 years ago.
Their efforts to negotiate with the United States hit a major obstacle with the closure of their office in Qatar. Since then, the Karzai administration has opened a parallel channel of negotiations with a faction of fairly senior former and current Taliban leaders, led by the regime's ex-finance minister, Aga Jan Motasim. Meanwhile, Pakistan has been trying to cooperate with the Afghan government in an effort to steer the Taliban and the government toward a power-sharing settlement. But most important is the extent of widespread public support for the democratic process and an aversion to any jihadist style of governance, as evidenced from the support of various tribes and regional forces for the top contenders.
Over the past four years, the Taliban leadership, led by Mullah Mohammad Omar, has tried to adjust the movement's rhetoric and behavior to accommodate public opinion. But the Taliban cannot easily change their nature and adjust to a society that is acclimating to pluralist politics. They have no choice, therefore, but to push ahead with their armed struggle, which is designed to reinforce widespread fears that once NATO forces are out and Karzai is no longer in office, the new leadership will be unable to provide security. People want stability, though they are still wary of Taliban rule. So the Taliban are resorting to attacks to show that life will still be miserable if the government does not meet their demands.
This way, the Taliban seek to compensate for their limited public support by getting large groups of the public to lose faith in the current political system and align with the Taliban for pragmatic reasons, or at least not oppose them. It would considerably help the Taliban if the election results are not accepted by a significant number of stakeholders and if the situation devolves into civil war. It is this kind of environment in which the Taliban, with their 20 years of experience in armed struggle, have an advantage. Thus it is in their interest to derail the democratic process.
The Taliban have calculated the weaknesses of each candidate and the likelihood of an indecisive vote. They can use the political uncertainty to their advantage by escalating attacks and trying to drive the country toward civil war. This is especially the case given that the chances of negotiations with Kabul, Islamabad and Washington are unlikely to result in an agreement that sufficiently integrates the Taliban outside of the electoral process.
The Taliban objective has long been to reshape the political system so that they can have a dominant role. When negotiations began with the United States, the jihadist movement was hoping the talks would lead to constitutional changes. But the pressure from both the Karzai administration and mainstream opposition groups prevented any such deals.
The most important factor, though, was the shift in the U.S. view of the talks as the Obama administration, after having entered into talks with representatives of Mullah Omar, realized that the mainstreaming of the Taliban is still a work in progress. Their "moderation" will take many years to achieve and in any case is not a foregone conclusion. In addition, a deal was not a prerequisite for a successful drawdown. The Afghan state, though weak, could hold the line against the insurgency, especially with the support of any residual U.S. military force that would remain behind until 2024.
This is why Karzai's refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement replaced the negotiations with the Taliban as the main event in the country over the past six months. He has resisted signing the agreement because of legacy issues and because he wants to shed perceptions that he was a U.S. puppet -- something he would need to do if he wants to wield influence after leaving the presidency. All the main presidential contenders have said that if elected they would sign the agreement -- another reason for the election to go smoothly.
Signing the Bilateral Security Agreement will be the easiest thing to do for the next president. However, the new president will still have to work with Karzai, who is likely to continue to exercise considerable influence behind the scenes.
Problematic Regional Cooperation
At the same time, the next president will have to ensure that all the ethnic, tribal and political factions remain invested in a system undergoing change and strain. In foreign affairs, the next administration will have to balance dealings with the United States with its relations with its two primary neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. Balancing between Pakistan and Iran will be all the more difficult given that the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is emerging as a key arena for the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, which has been aggravated by U.S.-Iranian diplomatic engagement.
Pakistan's Taliban insurgency and its deteriorating talks with jihadist rebels weaken Afghanistan's ability to manage its insurgency. Kabul's goal has been to engage as many Taliban members in talks as possible in order to render the battlefield more manageable. However, the talks are not going to produce results soon enough.
Making matters worse is the order this week from Karzai to all government agencies to refer to the country's eastern border with Pakistan as the Durand Line and not a normal border, reviving the historic Afghan position that they do not recognize the 19th century line drawn by the British. Thus, at a time when Kabul and Islamabad should be cooperating to counter their respective Taliban insurgencies, they are likely to spar even further, especially if the presidency goes to Ahmadzai or Abdullah, who Islamabad sees as more hostile than the Karzai camp.
Afghanistan and Pakistan can only manage the Taliban through diplomatic and military coordination. Their feuding gives the Taliban on both sides of the border ample room to exploit. The new Afghan president and the Sharif government need to have a dialogue if they realistically want to succeed. In essence, an electoral process that goes through more or less successfully is necessary, but not sufficient, for regional stability.
Courtesy : Stratfor (www.stratfor.com)