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.