Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Road Ahead


ROAD TO CHANGE...Afghan women queue outside a school to vote in presidential and local elections in the northwestern city of Herat on April 5. Female participation in the polls was far higher than expected. AFP
ROAD TO CHANGE…Afghan women queue outside a school to vote in presidential and local elections in the northwestern city of Herat on April 5. Female participation in the polls was far higher than expected. AFP

A successful political and peaceful transition in Afghanistan has to result from more than a fair election


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he relatively peaceful presidential election and unexpectedly high voter turnout marks a hopeful beginning to the many transitions Afghanistan has to negotiate this year – political, security and economic. What happens next in the election process and how these transitions proceed will be even more consequential for the country’s future.

A reasonably smooth polling day is just the first act of an unfolding political transition that has to play itself out. Final judgement on the election has to wait until the conclusion of the entire process. Moreover, a successful political transition involves more than the presidential election even though it is a good foundation to build on.

Comparisons have widely been drawn between the fairly smooth conduct of the April 5 election and the flawed outcome of the 2009 presidential poll. The conclusion of most observers is that this election has gone off much better than expected. But caution may still be in order as there are several hurdles to cross before the process can be declared an unblemished exercise.

On present indications, a runoff election seems a near certainty and may take place on May 28. Full preliminary results are due around April 24. After the counting is over polling staff will take several weeks to look into allegations of ballot fraud, which have been made by all three leading candidates. Once these complaints have been fully probed, official results will likely be announced on May 14. If no candidate has won more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round of balloting will follow.

Early preliminary results show Dr Abdullah Abdullah in the lead with Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai a close second, and Zalmai Rassoul, the man reputed to be President Hamid Karzai’s preferred choice, trailing far behind them. But as the UN’s special envoy Jan Kubis rightly pointed out: “until the final results are announced by the Independent Election Commission, stakeholders should be careful in drawing premature conclusions so as not to create inaccurate expectations”.

Even so, at least one tentative conclusion can be drawn from initial indications that Karzai’s favourite candidate has fared poorly in the election. Although Karzai may have hedged his bets by also maintaining links with the two front-runners, it is more than apparent that former foreign minister Rassoul was his preferred candidate. That being the case, the vote can be construed as a repudiation of Karzai and his policies and signalling the electorate’s desire to get past his erratic and unedifying tenure.

The immediate challenge however – once the election process is completed – is for the results to be accepted as legitimate by the principal contestants as indeed by the electorate. Evidence of significant ballot rigging would obviously puncture the credibility of the election. If the margin of fraud turns out to be more than the margin of victory this could spark a political crisis.

In the best-case scenario of the outcome being accepted as fair and transparent, an important first hurdle would have been crossed. But a successful political transition has to result from more than a controversy-free presidential election. Also essential for the political transition is a serious intra-Afghan dialogue that yields political accommodation among the various parties and with the armed opposition, the Taliban, and helps bring an end to the fighting ahead of December 2014.

As the new president is unlikely to assume office until July, this will leave a narrow window to make progress in negotiations towards a political settlement and reconciliation before the Nato deadline for the troop withdrawal. Nevertheless a new government installed after a credible election will undoubtedly present a fresh opportunity to re-launch the peace process – an opportunity that will have to be seized.

The Taliban had always refused to talk to the Karzai administration. But with Karzai stepping down and the Taliban’s calculations possibly changing after their failure to disrupt the election, the chances of getting a peace dialogue off the ground may be better under the new dispensation in Kabul.

A peace process is not likely to be an urgent priority for the US, which will have its immediate sights set on securing the Bilateral Security Agreement from the new government. Both leading candidates have pledged to sign the BSA, which will allow for a limited, residual US military presence in the country after 2014.

But the focus on the BSA should not stop the US from encouraging and facilitating a peace dialogue, because it is political dynamics that will shape a supporting environment for an orderly security transition in December 2014, when all Nato combat troops are to leave Afghanistan. More delay on this count will not serve the interest of Afghanistan’s post-2014 peace and stability.

Critical to Afghanistan’s future will be efforts to avert a violent stalemate from endangering its stability. A violent stalemate can ensue from a situation in which government forces (even under new political management) are unable to establish control over the entire country and the Taliban too cannot extend their sway beyond the areas they control at present. With violence continuing in this scenario, this would not only imperil the gains the country has made and its future stability, but the security of the region.

To avert this outcome, a determined bid will be necessary – once the election process is over – to start a serious intra-Afghan dialogue, with support from all the stakeholders including the US, Pakistan and Iran.

For Pakistan, struggling with the mounting threat posed by militants to its security, the stakes are particularly high. More fighting in Afghanistan will undermine its own efforts to control militancy. This is why Islamabad has long called for a serious Afghan peace dialogue to engage the Taliban and create the conditions that can bring the war to an end.

Pakistan is opposed to any armed takeover of power in Kabul. To reduce or remove the temptation for Taliban leaders to see the looming Western troop drawdown as an opportunity for them to step up their military campaign and escalate the fighting they have to be encouraged and coaxed to enter into talks about Afghanistan’s future.

Installing such a peace process will help to insure that the security transition will proceed peacefully when Nato forces pull out at the end of the year, even if the resilience and competence of Afghan security forces will really be tested in the years to come.

Prospects for Afghanistan’s post-2014 stability are also dependent on the fourth transition that lies ahead: forging a regional consensus in support of the country and on the rules of the game in the region.

China is set this August to host the next meeting of the ‘Heart of Asia’ process, launched in Istanbul three years back to evolve and mobilize regional cooperation for security and development in Afghanistan and its immediate and wider neighborhood. By the time this convenes, there will be greater clarity about the course of Afghanistan’s political transition.

There will then be an opportunity to make progress to solidify a regional consensus on Afghanistan. This will need to move beyond the declaratory to the practical and insure that all of Afghanistan’s neighbors and near neighbors commit to play by the same rules and abjure pursuing competitive security strategies that aim to take advantage of any security vacuum that may emerge after December 2014.

Before that hopeful point can be reached there are several obstacles that will have to be overcome. The road ahead from the election, even when successfully concluded, is strewn with difficulties and challenges, which will test the new leadership of Afghanistan as well as the strategies of its neighbors and key stakeholders.


All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Clarion India.

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