Questions on Security Louder Than Ever in Afghanistan Elections
The Afghanistan parliamentary elections are a precursor to next year’s presidential elections.
Forty-eight hours before Afghanistan heads into historic parliamentary elections, Kandahar’s police chief General Abdul Raziq along with his intelligence chief was shot and killed, reportedly by his own bodyguard(s) as they turned their weapons on him and others, including American soldiers.
The Taliban claimed the attack, forcing Kabul to postpone polling in Kandahar province, despite Afghans defying Taliban threats to come out and vote in healthy numbers.
This incident, in all its violence, showcases the tipping point at which Afghanistan peace is precariously balanced today.
“The Afghan elections are the success of its forces, people and the government”, president of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani said a few hours before the country went to polls, and an hour before the killing of Gen Raziq.
Information Gap Between Politicians and Electorate
The long-awaited parliamentary elections in Afghanistan come at a time when the future course for the country’s political structure remains lucid, at best. The elections are a precursor to next year’s presidential elections, and the following months could see a political wake for Kabul, which under the leadership of President Ashraf Ghani, is struggling on multiple fronts on coming up with a globally accepted resolution to the question of the Taliban, who after 17 years of war with the United States, still hold strong positions across the country.
According to research by the Afghanistan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS) on the experience of parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, the outcomes have been problematic on many accounts, with big disconnects between agendas of the politicians and information available with the electorate on what they’re voting for.
A general distrust of political organisations is also prevalent, with more than 60% of those surveyed by AISS going for educated, independent candidates than political parties.
Despite the ravages of war, advances of the Taliban and a depleting general security situation in the country, Ghani’s presidency has some light to show for, with these elections, the first such since 2002, the steady movements to strengthen democracy is good news for both the US and Kabul’s regional allies, particularly New Delhi.
However, arguably the challenges for Afghanistan’s politics today far outpace the strides Kabul has made to strengthen democratic processes. The Afghan war, now 17 years old, is heading nowhere, is rudderless, and by all indications, endless.
The Taliban Factor
The effort to ‘destroy’ the Taliban has been a spectacular failure, with reports from the US government’s leading oversight authority on the country, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) over the past two years highlighting the steady increase in the Afghan Taliban’s influence in large swathes of territory now semi-governed by Kabul. Despite the advancement of democratic processes, the situation remains fragile, and still largely dependent on American and NATO commitments to the country.
While Afghan capacity to take on threats to its sovereignty militarily has increased steadily, it is not even close to attaining the capabilities needed to handle the challenges posed by the Taliban and others, such as ISIS Khorasan Province (ISKP) alone.
This situation has become a point of contention, debate and disruption in Washington DC with varying opinions on what future course American policy should take to end a 17-year-old conflict, which has cost more than 2,500 American lives and the American taxpayer upwards of $1 trillion.
While many within the US establishment realise the catastrophes that await the international security apparatus in case of a sudden, unplanned and hurried exit from the conflict, the urgency to find an ‘out’ strategy across the board is palpable. This, despite a renewed air campaign in Afghanistan over the past few months to counter the new threat posed by ISKP, a group manned by former Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan fighters and smaller Pahstun warlords, with reports of Pakistani intelligence also playing a role within its ranks.
Washington is now also coming to terms on the other alternatives when it comes to deciding on the future of Afghanistan, and there are enough hints that at least the administration of president Donald Trump is open to the idea of the Taliban’s political in the processes of Afghan democracy. This has led to the US being open to talks on Afghanistan led by Russia, which include regional heavyweights such as China, India and Pakistan.
Cannot Ignore Interests of Other Countries
In a recent interview, former top US diplomat on Afghanistan Laurel Miller said that any American long-term achievement in the stability of Afghanistan cannot ignore the interests of countries that are currently in talks with Russia on Afghanistan, and that objections raised by these regional states cannot be discounted if peace is to be achieved.
While this highlights the disparities in thinking within the American dash for a permanent Afghan resolution, reports of secret Russian interactions with the Taliban, possibly leaked by the US intelligence apparatus to highlight Moscow’s attempts to undermine hard-earned American progress in the war, highlights the murky foreign interests of various interest groups and states over the future of Afghan politics.
Amidst the Afghan elections and the nurturing of its democracy, states such as Pakistan play a role that runs counter to ensuring stability.
With corruption having been rampant in the run-up to these polls, Pakistan would have in all likeliness played its cards to make sure none of its interests, which include the Taliban itself – a group mothered by both Pakistan and the US to fight erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1990s. Pakistan’s army headquarters-cum-de-facto-capital Rawalpindi would have taken this opportunity to try and cement its hyper-local influence to both counter India, which has more pull in Kabul, and the US, which needs Pakistan to aid its 18th year of war.
Amidst this smorgasbord of diplomatic maneuvering, New Delhi finds itself in its own predicaments – whether to support multilateral talks with the Afghanistan and go against its policy of not negotiating with terrorist groups, or face potential exclusion from a finale political process.
Nonetheless, these polls and continuous work towards the democratisation of a country plagued by wars for much of its modern history should be seen as a beacon of hope, despite the security situation in Afghanistan raising more questions than answers every passing day.
(Kabir Taneja is an Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and leads their West Asia initiative.)
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