Why Afghanistan’s election could fail

Hope for a new era of politics is being crushed by Taliban attacks and warlords jockeying for power

Pigeons fly as a policeman guards residents praying outside the Shah-e Doh Shamshira mosque during the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 30, 2011. Eid-al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar.   (REUTERS/Erik de Castro)

Pigeons fly as a policeman guards residents praying outside the Shah-e Doh Shamshira mosque during the first day of Eid-al-Fitr in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 30, 2011. (Erik de Castro/Reuters)

It is a momentous occasion for Afghanistan: for the first time since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Afghans will experience a democratic transition of power. The elections are set; candidates have said all they can to woo voters; and the Taliban have, well, acted like the Taliban, threatening and attacking with abandon in the lead up to the vote. Still, Afghans are going to the polls, looking ahead to a new era, post-Hamid Karzai, who, after more than a decade in power, must step aside, as the Afghan Constitution demands.

It all sounds very promising. Except the bit about the Taliban. And the fact that many Afghans will not be able to go to the polls because of on-going instability in much of the country. And the fact that Afghans are really being forced to bear witness to a mere re-shuffling of the power brokers they have had to endure for most of their lives.

It’s the fictions however that have defined the past few weeks of election campaigning and parlour-room chatter. If you believe the candidates, then Afghanistan is witnessing the magnanimity of wholesale ethnic reconciliation. Pashtun presidential hopefuls have enlisted Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks as vice-presidential running mates, groups that were attempting to annihilate each other during the devastating civil war of the 1990s. The three top candidates—Zalmay Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani—can justifiably say that they were not even directly involved in that war.

But on closer examination, their fictions collapse under the reality of electoral politics. “The main difference between this election and the 2009 election is that the ethnic component is largely missing at the presidential level,” says Abdulahad Mohammadi, head of Peace Studies at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. “You can see the rationale behind the dominance of Pashtun candidates— they actually have a chance at winning.”

With Pashtuns representing nearly 50 per cent of the Afghan population, it’s not such a bad electoral strategy. But lined up behind them as vice-presidential candidates are the usual suspects: Ismail Khan (Tajik), Rashid Dostum (Uzbek), Mohammad Mohaqqiq (Hazara), and other former warlords all banking on bizarre alliances as a roadmap to power while simultaneously framing these same partnerships as noble acts of reconciliation.

Few Afghans are buying it. “They think a thirsty man will drink from a poisoned well,” says one Kabul resident, Ramazan Hassani, 56. “But we’re not so stupid. These alliances are all political games. As long as these warlords are in power there will never be peace. The day we see them strung up by the necks for the crimes they have committed, that day we will have peace.”

History is on his side: factional leaders like Dostum, Khan, and Mohaqqiq, competing for weapons and money during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad, wobbled between alliances and rivalries. After the Soviet withdrawal, they fragmented into brutal inter-ethnic fighting but then united again in the late 1990s in the face of a relentless Taliban advance. After the fall of the Taliban regime, the cracks in the veneer of unity surfaced once again. Fashioning themselves as politicians, former militia commanders battled for control over key ministerial positions.

Underlying it all was a persistent opportunism. Patronage networks are now the engines that drive Afghan politics. Karzai has used them to maintain his grip on power over the past decade and the new presidential candidates have resorted to them in intense behind-the-scenes negotiations where key ministerial and bureaucratic positions in a new government are being bought and traded.

The lack of any substantial political vision among Afghanistan’s former warlords is the depressing reality of this election. But if there is a silver lining it’s that the warlords are learning the ins and outs of electoral politics. The dream of power (which in Afghanistan means the potential of fabulous wealth) seems to be stronger than the nightmares of civil wars past.

But after the fiasco of the 2009 elections, Afghans have become increasingly suspicious of the democratic process and very little, short of a clean election and a smooth transition of power, is likely to change that.

Unfortunately, no one expects this to be a clean and smooth process. Voter ID cards have been on sale for months in various cities across Afghanistan, and the tight race between the leading candidates virtually guarantees that no one candidate will win a clear majority, forcing a protracted and politically de-stabilizing run-off.

For the Taliban, the pieces could not be arrayed any more advantageously. A flurry of attacks over the last two weeks of the election campaign have exposed the two main features of their strategy: plunging Afghans into an environment of fear and uncertainty while at the same time not going far enough to stop the vote. A failed election, leading to political chaos and possibly a return to inter-ethnic conflict, serves their interest.

The targets of the latest attacks are telling. Focusing on foreigners has had the intended effect: international election monitors have fled the country. Attacks on the IEC and other government institutions like the Interior Ministry in Kabul maintains the illusion that they are an ever-present threat in the heart of the Afghan capital, and if they are potent there then they are potent everywhere, potentially preventing voters from going to the polls.

In reality, the Taliban have never had the resources to carry out spectacular attacks over a long period of time. The kinds of paroxysms of violence Afghanistan has witnessed recently are invariably linked to a significant event—an election or a gathering of elders, etc. Lacking the strength to make any lasting impact on the current government, the elections are the Taliban’s gift from god: they can now leave it to Afghanistan’s power brokers to get the job done for them.

For their part, Afghans find themselves adrift in a sea of fictions, powerless to prevent their leaders from turning what should be an historic moment into an abject failure. In the process, the hope of a new era in Afghanistan is fading fast.




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Why Afghanistan’s election could fail

  1. Afghanistan’s Islam culture will not support democracy. Its a case of unscrupulous people managing the masses using religion for war, power and control.

    Afghanistan proves that religion is politics, politics is religion, and they are both about controlling the people. Given Islam is governemtn, and people cannot question “Islam government” then they are in essence, via culture, born to be “blind faith” slaves of their religion/government.

    Best thing for Canada? Just let them devour each other. You can’t save this society unless you are willing to do whatever it takes to break the dysfunctional religious culture. And we are not politically willing to correct his, so lets stop wasting our blood and money and leave Afghanistan and Iraq to its own self imposed misery.

  2. Here I sit in Kabul reading this piece beginning with “Hope for a new era of politics is being crushed by Taliban attacks and warlords jockeying for power.” Way to focus on only the bad in a story and destine everything for failure, Eeyore.
    I spoke with some of the locals here yesterday and they could not hide their exhuberance over having voted. Some were getting pictures taken, proudly displaying thier purple fingers. Then there are the stories of people in remote areas walking 20-40 miles in circuitous routes to throw off anybody who might be watching, just so they could cast their own ballot.
    Yes, there’s been several attacks over the past few weeks, something doomsday prophets and naysayers like yourself never fail to notice. Of course, in your vision which must be better than everybody elses’, you didn’t recognize that the Afghans have been doing an outstanding job fighting the insurgents off, capturing before they can attack, and mitigating loss of life. All without Western assistance. The attacks have been so regularly thwarted or poorly executed that one paper indicated depression amongst the Taliban leadership.
    Yes, the election could fail. Yes, the current front-runners could be another power-broker seeking for more power and fortune. Yes, a lot of things can go wrong and many probably will. But on the even of this momentous occasion, how about doing something constructive with your education rather than peeing into the wind?

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