Things can only get better

Why the 2014 Afghan elections matter and why Ghani should win

March 31, 2014

Events in the Ukraine and elsewhere have contributed to a relative lack of western media coverage of the 2014 Afghan elections, due to start on April 5. There are several reasons. New Cold War notwithstanding, America ‘and its allies’ would prefer to draw a line under Operation ‘Enduring Freedom,’ now seen as more about enduring and less about freedom. After an estimated trillion dollars, hundreds of ISAF troop deaths and hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives lost, the country is in no better shape than before the US-led occupation.

Dr Ashraf Ghani speaking  in Logar province Listening crowds in Logar province Ghani's campaign in Kunduz province The crowd in Kunduz Khost province Khost province Takhar province A poster of Dr Ashraf Ghani held aloft in Takhar province Gardez Paktia province Gardez Paktia province Helmand province Helmand province Badkhshan province Badkhshan province Ghani speaks to the crowds in Kabul
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A poster of Dr Ashraf Ghani held aloft in Takhar province

The situation is bewilderingly complex. Western democratic narratives and norms simply do not apply in an unstable transitional state, especially Afghanistan. They never did: attempting to impose them contributed to the mess. Unpalatable as it may appear to progressive liberals, the best Afghanistan can hope for in these troubled times is a version of ‘feudal democracy’ where tribal and ethnic groups are represented in the ‘Loya Jirga‘ by leaders familiar with the principles and practice of pragmatic sanction.

Facts are thin on the ground. Rumours, punditry, propaganda and speculation are rife while the Taliban and other factions are bombing and intimidating candidates in a concerted campaign to disrupt the election process. Today’s attack on the Independent Election Commission offices in Kabul, ahead of posting a list of polling booths, followed yesterday’s attack on a building housing US aid workers, killing two Afghan nationals.  Bombing the Serena Hotel in Kabul, where many international observers were staying, is another blatant provocation. On 25 March Taliban suicide bombers attacked the election headquarters of leading candidate Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, next to his home. None of his family were hurt, but five people including two policemen and an election worker were killed, plus all five suicide bombers. In February, two members of frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah’s campaign team were killed in Herat province.

The Taliban are disrupting the process, as they did in 2009. This time their efforts focus on discouraging the election winner from signing an agreement to extend ISAF support beyond the planned withdrawal date. To date, Karzai has not signed, leaving his successor with a decision which will leave him open to the unpopular charge of further collaboration with the invaders if he does and woefully inadequate resources if he doesn’t. Both Abdullah and Ghani have stated that they will quickly move to sign a further agreement if elected.

Lastly, it is unlikely that the April 5 poll will produce an outright winner. To do that, one of the candidates would need to poll more than 50 per cent of the votes. The 2009 Afghan elections degenerated into black farce after the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, won an improbable landslide at the first round. US and UN observers forced a runoff which Karzai comfortably ‘won’ after former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah withdrew, (rightly) claiming that the Independent Election Commission had inadequately addressed concerns about election funding fraudballot rigging, bribery and mass intimidation. Unfortunately, Abdullah’s former Northern Alliance coalition backers engaged in bribery and corruption themselves, unhelpful to a candidate standing on a resolutely anti-corruption platform. Abdullah’s reasonable demeanour was further called into question when he threatened civil war, moreover.

Ramazan Bashardost, former Planning Minister, and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai finished third and fourth in the first round. Both western-educated technocrats stood on ‘anti-corruption’ platforms and were largely unaligned to ‘warlord’ factions. So they lost.

This time, everybody’s got muscle

Karzai cannot stand for a third term, but has a vested interest in endorsing a successor who might keep his seat warm and give him immunity from prosecution for alleged profiteering while in office. His preferred proxy, Vice-President Marshal Mohammed Fahim, no genius but with strong links to Tajik factions and regional strongmen, died recently, obliging Karzai to promote Zalmai Rassoul, former Foreign Minister, a fellow Pashtun. Ghani and Abdullah are both standing again. Ghani is marginally ahead in the polls with around 30 per cent, but an estimated 28 per cent of voters are undecided. If Rassoul, currently trailing a distant third, mysteriously shoots up the rankings and wins an improbable majority, this would almost certainly cause widespread insurgency at home, outrage abroad and calls for a rerun as in the 2009 campaign. Karzai must know this. One time-honoured tactic is to convince the comet’s tail of also-rans to peel off and pledge their allegiance to Rassoul, but their combined votes won’t make sufficient difference at this stage. So it looks likely that Abdullah and Ghani will fight out the next round.

Ghani has teamed up with veteran Northern Alliance anti-Taliban fighter, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who supported Karzai last time, marshalling core Uzbek support and that of other northern warlord factions. Dostum left the administration after the President reneged and failed to give him due recognition. The First Vice President in a future Ghani administration commanded forces who allegedly tortured and killed several hundred Taliban being held as prisoners, leaving them to slow roast in transport containers, as well as committing other acts of ‘brutality’ – in the course of fighting against psychopathic child-killers, it has to be noted. Ghani himself described Dostum as a ‘killer’ in 2009, but explains the partnership thus: ‘Politics is not a love marriage, politics is a product of historical necessities.’ Dostum has publicly apologised for his previous excesses of zeal in the war against the Taliban, has called for national unity and says he chose to support Ghani because supporting Abdullah, a former Northern Alliance medic of Pashtun-Tajik lineage, ‘would split the country.’ While Ghani’s choice of Vice President has dismayed liberals at home and abroad, it has done him no harm with the majority at home, especially in the regions, where it is seen as a welcome sign of strength and Dostum is popular. Ghani’s campaign focuses on what he says are Afghanistan’s three most disenfranchised but biggest groups: women, young people and the rural poor.

Abdullah has warlord backing in the form of Hazara strongman Mohammed Mohaqiq, while several other so-called ‘warlords’ – a pejorative, colonial term with which I am uncomfortable – are among the eight candidates standing in the first round. The Taliban will focus their murderous efforts on unsettling voters in the majority Pashtun South, where Rassoul’s candidature might split the vote against Ghani, potentially giving an advantage to Abdullah, whose strength lies in his support amongst the northern Tajiks and other minorities. Though both leading contenders have declared their absolute opposition to the Taliban, an Abdullah presidency would indeed split the country – he would find it hard to control the south. Thus SNAFU would prevail.

Much depends on Karzai’s patronage in the event of a runoff between Abdullah and Ghani. He has promised to keep out of the election process, but hasn’t thus far and few believe he will. He may be wary of supporting Ghani, a fellow Pashtun, but must know that Abdullah, a sworn enemy, will win if he doesn’t.

Lest we forget – a very brief history of recent Afghan interventions

Taliban fundamentalism was the catalyst for the 1980s Soviet and 2001 US/NATO occupations both of which  had little to do with state building or democracy. The Soviets aimed to halt the growth of Islamic political fundamentalism and hold onto some form of sphere of influence on the borders of their crumbling empire. The invasion cost tens of thousands of Russian military casualties, up to a million Afghan civilian deaths and international outrage. The US armed Afghan insurgents in a proxy last hurrah of the old Cold War, which arguably put the last nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union, but the unintended consequence of empowering the Taliban to briefly take control of the country was September 11, 2001. Enraged by Afghanistan’s refusal to surrender Osama Bin Laden, who had been sponsored by Saudi elements and allegedly trained by US forces in deadly insurgency methods, the US invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban. But the resulting insurgency costs hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives and has added another Vietnam to the roll call of ideological misadventures undertaken in the name of establishing democracy under the ideology of liberal intervention. Afghanistan was followed by Iraq. The rest, sadly, is history.

Now Afghanistan faces its biggest challenge since Soviet times. The Taliban established their rule from 1996-2001 by taking advantage of the divisions and chaos that were the result of more than two decades of catastrophe. The people(s) of Afghanistan – more accurately its various ethnic, tribal, rural and civic populations – would welcome the opportunity to govern themselves in their own way, with leaders elected along (for want of a better word) ‘democratic’ lines. Ashraf Ghani challenged the Taliban to join the governing process by fielding candidates, but it goes without saying that ‘Talibanism’ does not recognise self-determination, much less popular democracy.

The winner of the 2014 Afghan elections faces the challenge of uniting a new ‘coalition of the willing’ to engage in a process of state building, largely without the ‘help’ of foreigners and against a backdrop of persistent and brutal insurgency from ideologically driven factions who have thrived on the absence of the rule of law, insecurity, and infighting between vested interests. Ghani has repeated his intention to form a government of national unity if elected, including Abdullah, should he choose to join. But the Taliban are not the only force which stands to gain from perpetuating disunity. Poppy is still the country’s leading cash crop, and like any weed, it flourishes in an environment of chaos. Opium production is big business, providing subsistence income at rural level but vast riches for a few – and misery for western underclasses – when refined and exported.

Factional infighting among ‘warlords’ was the cause of the collapse of the rule of law which opened the door to the Taliban in the 1970s. This time the warlords (how I hate that term!) can make a positive difference. Ashraf Ghani’s diplomatic, development and state building credentials, with Dostum’s links to key ethnic groups and leaders, plus his unquestionable counter-insurgency expertise, are the least worst solution for Afghanistan at this time. Let’s hope the nice guy, with his tough guy wing man, finishes first.