September 14, 2014

Afghan Politics: Flawed Elections

Yohannan Chemarapally

IN what was more or less a replay of the presidential elections held four years ago, Abdullah Abdullah, has once again charged that the election process this time was also deeply flawed and that he was robbed of certain victory. As the voting trends became clear in early July and his main rival building up an unassailable lead, Abdullah dramatically announced that he would refuse to recognise the results of the elections. In preliminary results released on July 6, the Afghan Electoral Commission projected that Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the finance minister and former World Bank official is going to win by a landslide. Abdullah sensing that the political tide had turned against him in the second round after the Pashtun vote had consolidated around Ghani, had started making allegations of widespread electoral fraud even before the Election Commission came out with its preliminary projections on the vote. Abdullah, who had served as foreign minister under Karzai during his first term, had initially threatened to form a parallel government. Abdullah was a leading figure in the Northern Alliance which had fought the Taliban government before the American invasion of Afghanistan. That Alliance led by the late Ahmad Shah Masood, Abdullah’s mentor, had the support of countries like India, Iran and Russia. The Northern Alliance forces had given a helping hand to the Americans as they routed the Taliban from Kabul. The implicit message being sent from the Abdullah camp was that if significant political concessions were not made then a grouping similar to the Northern Alliance could re emerge, once again raising the spectre of a renewed civil war. This is a prospect not relished by the Obama administration. Both Abdullah and the man likely to be the next president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, had pledged to sign the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement if elected to the presidency. Both of them enjoy close relations with the US administration. Ghani like many leading Afghan politicians holds dual American and Afghan citizenship. President Ahmad Karzai, much to the chagrin of the Obama administration, had refused to sign the agreement, arguing that it infringes on Afghan sovereignty. He however had left it to the discretion of his successor to accept or reject the security pact offered by the Americans. Washington has given the highest priority to the security agreement. The agreement would allow the continued presence of significant numbers of American troops on Afghan soil and would also provide the US with more leverage in the Central and South Asian region. The American secretary of state, John Kerry had rushed post haste to Kabul in the second week of July to defuse the situation that had the potential to derail the orderly withdrawal of US/NATO forces from the country. The deadline for withdrawal is the end of this year. Some of Abdullah’s key allies, including his running mate Atta Mohammad Noor, have been loudly demanding the formation of a parallel government. Noor is a rival of another warlord, Rashid Dostam, who coincidentally is Abdullah’s candidate for vice president. The formation of a parallel government would have once again split the country on ethnic lines. Besides more than 50 percent of the officer corps in the 200,000 strong Afghan National army along with the majority of troops is Tajik and non-Pashtun. If it comes to a showdown, the Afghan security forces could side with those who were once with the Northern Alliance. Many Afghanistan watchers however feel that such a scenario is anyway inevitable after the bulk of the American forces leave the country. More than 40 percent of the Afghan population is Pashtun. The Taliban’s support base is among them. If as many predict, the Taliban makes steady military gains after the American troop withdrawal, an alliance similar to the Northern alliance could once again be cobbled up. The foreign powers which backed the Northern Alliance like India, Iran and Russia are still suspicious about the Taliban and its close relationship with the Pakistani Intelligence and Security services. It is widely presumed that the Quetta Shura comprising of the top Taliban leadership, including its Emir, Mullah Omar, are all holed up in the Pakistani city of Quetta. ARM TWISTING BY THE US A little bit of American arm twisting by the American secretary of state during his visit to Kabul saw Abdullah climbing down and agreeing to the compromise formula proposed by the Americans. President Obama had issued a warning to the Abdullah camp that resorting to extra constitutional means would lead to the cutting off all American assistance to Afghanistan. 90 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP of $34 billion comes from western military spending and foreign aid. The US had already reduced its civilian aid by half to $1.2 billion last year. Kerry announced on July 12 that all eight million votes cast in the elections will be audited in the presence of international observers. Kerry stated that the results of the audit will be final and announced that both Ghani and Abdullah have agreed that a government of “national unity” will be formed to be headed by the winner of elections. There is little doubt that the ultimate winner is going to be Ghani. The unwritten understanding seems to be that many of Abdullah’s close associates would be accommodated in the next government. Both Abdullah and Ghani were present when Kerry made his statement. The two rivals for the presidency were then seen warmly greeting each other. President Karzai welcomed the latest developments though he had initially spoken out against outside interference in Afghanistan’s electoral process. Much of the ire of Abdullah and his supporters were directed at Karzai. They had accused the president of masterminding the so called massive electoral fraud. The president’s portraits were pulled down and trashed by angry supporters of the Tajik leaders in Kabul after the Election Commission announced its preliminary results. Karzai, after a cordial meeting with Kerry, has now agreed to the postponement of the inaugural ceremony for the new president. Karzai was supposed to demit office on August 2. NATO planes will be carrying the ballot boxes from the provinces to the capital Kabul for tabulation in the ongoing efforts to convince Afghans and the international community that the counting process at least will be transparent and free. Abdullah had made similar accusations of fraud when he had contested against Ahmad Karzai in the 2009 elections. Abdullah had dramatically withdrawn from the second round at that time, claiming that the rigging of the kind he had witnessed in the first round would make his participation in the final round meaningless. In these elections, Adbullah had no complaints about the first round in which he emerged with 45 percent of the votes polled. His main rival, Ashraf Ghani had come second with around 32 percent of the vote. Abdullah, who is of mixed Tajik-Pashtun parentage had got the majority of the votes from the non-Pashtun bloc of voters comprising mainly of ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras. Ghani’s opportunistic alliance with Rashid Dostam helped him corner the bulk of the Uzbek minority vote. Dostum’s who rules the Uzbek area in northern Afghanistan with an iron hand is known for his brutal and unscrupulous ways. The militia he commanded had prevented president Najibullah from leaving Kabul after the progressive government he led had fallen to the American and Pakistani backed mujahedin groups. This led to his capture and brutal execution. Dostam’s forces were responsible for a lot of atrocities in the wake of the American led overthrow of the Taliban government. Dostum in all likelihood will be the next vice president of Afghanistan. There is no denying that a lot of fraudulent votes were cast as had happened in all the previous elections held under the American occupation. In the first round in this year’s election, the turnout in the Pashtun dominated areas was minimal. In the second round more than a million more votes were cast, most of them in the Pashtun dominated areas. Ghani claims that the turnout had gone up due to the efforts of his campaign team to persuade fellow Pashtuns and women voters to come out in large numbers. The Taliban had called for a boycott of the elections and were successful in ensuring a low turnout in their southern strongholds in the first round. In the second round, the Taliban may not have been all that averse to ballot boxes being stuffed in favor of Ghani. Ghani, unlike Abdullah, seems inclined to negotiate with the Taliban and include them in the Afghan power structure. The Americans have also realistically concluded that getting the Taliban on board is the only way to prevent the country from lurching into full scale civil war. Only around 10,000 US soldiers will remain in the country by the end of the year. They will mostly be confined to Kabul and the nearby air force base in Bagram. The US hopes to retain more bases and even increase the number of troops in Afghanistan after a new security agreement comes into force. The Americans need more bases to keep an eye on Iran and Russia and to continue with their drone operations against militants in Pakistan. If a political settlement is not reached with the Taliban soon, most observers expect a surge in attacks on government forces in the coming months. An escalation in Taliban attacks has been visible in recent weeks. The presence of other Pashtun candidates in the electoral fray had also eaten into Ghani’s tally in the first round. In the second round, both the candidates, Ghani as well as Abdullah could have benefitted from rigging. In Pashtun dominated Kandahar and Zabul, Ghani got 86 and 92 percent of the votes, respectively. In Tajik dominated areas of Parwan and Kapisa, Abdullah got more than 86 percent of the vote. A senior adviser of Abdullah told the American media that president Karzai was responsible for engineering an “industrial scale fraud”. From available evidence all sides seem to be in the same boat. In earlier elections too, ballot boxes and voting lists have routinely gone missing. International observers, including those from western countries have taken for granted that incidents of massive fraud are a given in Afghan elections. In early September, even as the Election Commission was on the verge of declaring the winner after painstakingly recounting all the ballots and invalidating suspicious ones, Abdullah announced that he would not recognise the results due to be announced by the Elections Commission again insisting that there was widespread fraud in the second round of elections. Abdullah’s demand for a “national unity government” in which he hopes to play a key role, has still not been accepted by Ghani and his allies. President Barack Obama has talked to both candidates in the second week of September, urging them to accept the election results. At the same time he strongly urged the formation of a “national unity government”. Anyway, holding free and fair elections in a country under foreign military occupation and plagued by widespread insurgency, is a tall order. In general, the Afghan people have got a raw deal during the 13 years of American occupation. Recent events have belied the claims that the US has succeeded in implementing the rule of law and democracy in the country. Unemployment stands at 35 per cent and those living below the poverty line constitute more than 40 percent of the population. According to UN reports, malnutrition in children is going up not down in Afghanistan. Violence against woman is only rising. Targeted killings by American military drones have claimed hundreds of innocent civilian lives. The warlords raised and nourished by the Americans in the eighties continue to flourish and have a stranglehold on the economy and the politics of the country. More than 630,000 Afghans remain displaced living in squalid refugee camps. And with the Taliban seemingly poised for a return there is very little solace in sight for the Afghan people in the coming years.