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Afghan Elections …. and then what

As Afghanistan braces for the September 18 Parliament elections, a look back at the August, 2009 Presidential elections is in order.

One should not be surprised by election frauds like booth capturing, vote buying, or ballot box stuffing in a developing or underdeveloped country. But the manner the Presidential elections were fixed by President Hamid Karzai, startled western election observers and their governments beyond belief. This was due to a cultural and developmental divide which may take another 50 years to breach. There was a culture shock. But that does not mean that acts like stuffing one million ballot papers in boxes can be condoned.

In a manner, Karzai broke the unity among the people of Afghanistan against the Taliban insurgents. Afghanistan will suffer from this for years to come.

On the other hand Karzai feared, and there was visible evidence, that the west led by the Americans were planning to oust him and put their stooge at the head of the Kabul government with an advisory council with Americans in it. It is sad to say that the Americans, with all their lessons in failures, have not understood that a foreign stooge cannot last to deliver to his masters anywhere, especially in Afghanistan.

In fact, President Hamid Karzai came to power in Afghanistan with American support. But he quickly learnt that this very label was going to be his undoing. This led to his demonstrating independence from the US as soon as the situation allowed.

Unfortunately for Hamid Karzai, and the West, eradication of corruption and poppy cultivation is easier said than done. Outside the Kabul area, especially in Southern Afghanistan local governments remain mainly in name only. Karzai fell from grace with the west, but the west must know at the moment that he is their best bet. There is a huge task ahead in Afghanistan if the Americans and the NATO forces are to devise a face saving exit.

The question is will the parliamentary elections be as frustrating as the presidential election? A very difficult question to answer. But one thing is clear. Both Karzai and the West appear to have learnt some lessons from the last presidential elections.

Given the country’s limited capability even with international assistance and co-operation, there are 2,550 candidates including 406 women, for 249 seats – a daunting task to effectively monitor. Some 938 polling stations have been closed, deemed to be in unstable areas. The women candidates and their supporters are already under attack from the highly religious conservative insurgents.

Taliban chief, Mullah Omar has issued a call to the people to boycott the polls, saying it was a foreign ploy to perpetuate their hold over Afghanistan. He also threatened to disrupt the elections and target Western forces, Afghan forces and those people who will participate in the elections. The fear factor has already been notified.

This would be another disincentive for the people to vote. They are asking who will protect them when the polls are over, as the Taliban intelligence network among the people list those who have gone against their diktats. The people distrust the highly corrupt Afghan police, have doubts over the Afghan national army’s capabilities, and the international forces will not remain to secure the ground and their lives. It is, therefore, anyone’s guess about the level of participation.

Northern Afghanistan may see an improved scenario compared to the last presidential elections. The Taliban is not as strong there as in the south, and ballot capturing is likely to be restricted. Therefore, elements of the erstwhile Northern Alliance may do well. But this may not be to USA’s liking as the Northern Alliance is still perceived as pro-Russia by the obdurate hardliners in Washington.

No aspect, therefore, is likely to go smoothly, and questions remain open.

The usually balanced leading Pakistani newspaper, the Dawn (Sept. 09) quoted an unnamed survey in Afghanistan to say that 74-76 percent of the Afghans not only support Karzai’s talks with the Taliban, but were not opposed to the Taliban sharing power in Kabul if they stop fighting. This is a very mature response from the people. They did not demand the Taliban lay down their arms, which would be unrealistic.

The Afghan peace plans will take a new twist after the parliamentary elections. President Karzai has formed a new Council to conduct talks with the Taliban. He is not talking about “good Taliban” or “bad Taliban”, and the Council reportedly has a couple of former militants.

The US has been dithering about Karzai’s talks with the Taliban, though US Commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus indicated last week that they had given some assistance to the talks. The problem for the US is how independently Karzai will conduct the talks, and if US will be taken into confidence. The US interest in Afghanistan has gone beyond anti-terrorism to larger geopolitics, but confusion reigns both strategies.

The Pakistan army (the civilian government does not matter) will not take kindly to Karzai dealing with the Taliban independent of Pakistan. Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Pervez Asfaq Kayani had personally brought Karzai and the pro-Pakistan and pro-Taliban Haqqani network together. Taliban commanders including their senior commander Mullah Baradar remains in Pakistani custody for having talked to the Karzai emissaries without the Pak army and ISI clearance.

All these issues are going to unravel post elections despite a growing view among Pakistan’s free thinking media and intellectuals that the “Strategic depth in Afghanistan” strategy was a lost cause. The Pak army is unlikely to move from its stated objective.

The coming weeks and months do not give any clear indications to developments as the whole situation is in a flux. But each of the three main players, the US, Pakistan and Karzai’s government have their original objectives in their respective perspectives.

The Taliban’s perspective have not been well examined except for their original position that they want to establish an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan under strict or even distorted Shariat Laws. The Saudi Wahabis may be the only ones to support this Taliban obsession.

But if the Taliban can arrive at a compromise in Afghanistan, they may have to temper their code of conduct especially with regard to women’s education and right to work. They should be learning from the Saudi experiments in this sphere.

There are two other issues. The Taliban wants all foreign presence in Afghanistan to withdraw. This is something the Americans will not agree to, given the billions of dollars and lives they have invested. The only way to circumvent this is if the Saudis can persuade the Taliban with their own example.

Next, over the Taliban relocating to Afghanistan completely, there will be issues like the border question especially the British drawn Durand line, which the Taliban does not accept. This could stage another conflict between the Taliban and Pakistan.

Stability and peace do not appear to be written anywhere in Afghanistan. Interests of Russia and its erstwhile states one the one had who suffer from insurgency and narcotics emanating from Afghanistan with Pakistani ISI assistance, and China’s move to use Afghanistan in more ways than one having been Taliban supporters, will need to be calculated.

Internally, President Karzai and his close group of family and friends will have to make some quiet calculations at this time of stress. When pushed hard Hamid Karzai is prone to make statements like he would join the Taliban, actions like dismissing his intelligence chief at Pakistani army pressure, or his recent act excluding all foreigners in investigating corruption are being noted by others that he may be undependable. When foreigners are giving money of their tax payers for Afghanistan they have a right to know if that money is being spent for the purpose it was meant for. At the same time, foreigners, especially the US lawmakers, should be a little more discreet.

The old Northern Alliance factions, especially the Tajiks and Uzbeks are watching Karzai’s moves very closely. The Hazara leaders have already started saying that Karzai was Talibanizing Afghanistan. One scenario they say is a possible Karzai-Pak Army-Taliban equation with support from Saudi Arabia and China, and the US and NATO quietly withdrawing. This may not be acceptable to the other Afghan constituents with unpredictable consequences.

A recent survey reported by the Pakistani newspaper the Dawn, said India was the most likeable country among the Afghan people because of its work. This gives New Delhi a significant edge. But how to use it to serve the Afghan peace process is the question. It is time that India considered holding a New Delhi round of all stakeholders in Afghanistan Conference on development and reconstruction issues in the country. The military aspects can either be kept aside or quietly submerged in it. Finally, more Afghan stakeholders other than only the Karzai government should be invited to the conference. Many permutations and combinations have been tried. One more will not harm.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a China analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own. email:

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