By Seema Guha
2014-04-19, Issue 16 Volume 11
It was a watershed moment in Afghanistan’s history. On 5 April, roughly 60 percent of Afghans defied the Taliban’s boycott call and inclement weather to exercise their democratic right. In the 2009 election, the turnout was a mere 35 percent. This increase has taken place in the face of strenuous efforts by the Taliban to intimidate voters into not going to the polls. These have included a number of coordinated strikes in the provinces and an attack on the well-fortified Serena Hotel to remind the voters how easily it could reach into the very heart of Kabul.
The international community feels vindicated that 12 hard years of fighting the Taliban and building a modern democratic country has paid off and that Afghanistan is now less likely to collapse into chaos the moment the American forces leave. But the Afghans are under no illusions that this is only the beginning and not the end of their struggle.
“The Afghan people have sent out a clear message that they want to institutionalise their democracy and reject violence and extremism,” says Ashraf Haidari, the deputy chief of mission at the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi. “It is also a message to the international community and to our friends in the region, including India, to stay the course so that the sacrifices of all those who died for the cause will not have been in vain.”
In an obvious reference to US attempts for direct talks with the Taliban as an attempt to broker a deal with Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura in its hurry to get out, the diplomat adds, “The high turnout shows that there are no shortcuts to peace. No piecemeal deals.”
This time, Afghanistan’s army and police have done a much better job than in the 2009 election, signalling they are better prepared to take on the Taliban. Though there was violence, the level had come down drastically. In the 2009 polls, 625 security incidents were reported; while this time the, figure was just about 150. In the 20 hours leading up to the polls, 89 Taliban militants were killed, 179 fighters were arrested as four civilians and 16 security personnel lost their lives. In 2009, the government figures showed that 26 people had died. But these figures are disputed as the government clamped down on reporting actual number in an effort to show that the polls were smooth. Independent sources believed that polling was not more than 35 percent nationally, while it was a dismal 10 percent in Helmund and Quandhar.
Though there have been allegations of fraud and nearly 3,000 complaints have come in, compared to 2009, this year’s polls were distinctly fairer. Last time, President Hamid Karzai was accused of rigging by the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah. In fact, he was so disgusted that he refused to go for the eventual run-off.
There can be allegations of fraud, which could mar the euphoria. The losers among the three main contenders hoping to replace Karzai must accept defeat graciously, keeping in mind the interests of the country. Unlike in 2009, when there were 41 contestants, this time the final numbers after withdrawal was eight. Preliminary results will be announced around 24 April. Chances are there will be a second round as none of the candidates are expected to win 50 percent of the votes. The top two will have a run-off either in May or June.
Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, of Tajik-Pashtun parentage, is said to be doing well. Ashraf Ghani, a US-educated former World Bank executive as well as former finance minister, is another frontrunner. Ghani is from an influential Pasthun family. The third contender is former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, a moderate said to be backed by President Karzai. Reports place Abudullah Abdullah and Ghani for the run-off.
It is crucial that the unlike the 2009 polls, this one is not mired in controversy. “Afghanistan needs a legitimate government that can consolidate central authority across the length and breadth of the country to be in a position to take on the Taliban,” says Vivek Katju, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. Kabul’s authority will have to be projected not just in and around the capital but in the far-flung provinces too for the government to make a dent on the Taliban.
One of the first tasks of the new president will be to ensure that the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US is signed and sealed. All three major candidates are for it. President Karzai, who had testy relations with the US, decided to leave it for his successor to tackle.
The deal will allow Afghanistan to have a small number of US troops (reportedly between 8,000 to 12,000) stationed in the country to train and assist the Afghan army. Though the Afghan army has improved its proficiency considerably, it is still not a professional force. Without professionalism, the army may find it difficult to get the better of the Taliban. Over the past year, with the reduction of foreign troops and handing over of responsibility to the Afghan forces, they have proved capable of handling many contingencies. It is also true that during major firefights, the Afghan army could rely on either the US or NATO to provide assistance in the form of air cover. Afghanistan does not have airpower. It desperately needs the US to train and equip its air force. Once the bilateral agreement is signed, all these issues will possibly be tackled.
Without this bilateral arrangement in place, the Taliban may be in a position to spread its net and finally close in on Kabul. The disconcerting fact is that the Afghan army is manned basically by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other smaller groups, and the major tribe, the Pasthuns, have little representation in it. This has to change to make the army a truly national institution.
The good news is that the Afghans have experienced a degree of stability and freedom in the past 12 years, which they will not want to give up. When the Taliban first seized power, the people welcomed the move in the hope that having one centre of power was preferable to warring factions with guns. The withdrawal of the Russian troops had led to civil war and chaos, which was halted by the Taliban.
Today, the scene is completely different. Despite much criticism levelled against him, Karzai has succeeded in holding the country together and giving democracy a chance. After the dark days of the Taliban, when girls were not allowed to study, Karzai ensured that girls went back to school and were in workplaces. In 2009, he passed the Elimination of Violence against Women decree, which, for the first time, tried to legally protect women’s rights. Music and dance were no longer banned and Afghanistan was once again a moderate Islamic State.
As the voting percentage in this year’s presidential election showed, these are not gains that the people of Afghanistan are willing to let go easily. The Taliban may find that marching into Kabul may not be a walkover. A new generation of young Afghans has grown up with a sense of national identity of the post- Taliban period. Yet, ethnic and tribal loyalties still run deep, and the new-found nationalism of the young needs time to develop. This feeling can be nurtured only when a sense of nation emerges in an atmosphere of peace and stability.
If Afghanistan is to succeed, the international community needs to keep its purse strings open. Billions of dollars are needed for developing infrastructure; reviving the economy and helping Afghanistan make use of its rich mineral resources. Generous loans for education and health must remain intact. The US cannot repeat the mistake it made after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Luckily, the Americans are aware of the pitfalls.
“The high turnout in the face of Taliban threats and violence should remind Americans why the US went to war in the first place and what is at stake if we give up on the mission prematurely,” says Lisa Curtis, a senior researcher at Washington DC-based think-tank Heritage Foundation. “Now is not the time for the US to give up on the Afghan mission and turn its back on the country… It is vital that the US partners with the Afghans to prevent Taliban resurgence. They have demonstrated their determination to build a democratic country and willingness to defy the Taliban in doing so. The US must show it is fully behind them.”
Pakistan, which has often been blamed for much of Afghanistan’s woes, is in no mood to stir the pot. Turbulence in Afghanistan has a direct blowback effect in Pakistan. Yet, as a neighbor that understands Afghanistan more than any other country, Pakistan believes that unless the Pasthuns, the largest tribal group in Afghanistan, are given a share of political power in the post-Karzai set-up, peace will remain elusive.
To build on the gains of the past 12 years, Afghanistan needs some American soldiers to stay back. At the same time, the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan will give the Taliban just the excuse it needs to keep fighting. The road ahead is tough and only time will tell if Afghanistan will descend into chaos or emerge as a modern democratic nation.