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Voting against the Taliban: Free Elections in Afghanistan Mark the Beginning of an Arduous Road to Peace



By Khaled Ahmed

April 19, 2014

Free elections in Afghanistan mark the beginning of an arduous road to peace.

Watching TV on April 6 as Afghanistan got ready to vote for its next president, I agreed with three analysts who said the vote this time will be ethnic-based again, proving that the country was not on the same page regarding “one future together”: former foreign secretary of Pakistan Najmuddin Shaikh, former ambassador and consul in Afghanistan Ayaz Wazir, and Afghanistan-watcher and senior journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai. This meant that civil war would be an option post-2014 and that external interference was certain.

I was wrong. The Afghans went and voted, not along ethnic lines, but as a nation opposed to the Taliban (read: Pakistan) and ready to make sacrifices for peace under a political order bequeathed to them by a UN-sanctioned international force. The political order that the Taliban hoped to roll back was a liberal programme which freed the brutalised Afghan woman and forced warring ethnicities to live together. Voters came out of polling booths saying they had voted against the Taliban.

There were eight candidates wanting to become the next president but three turned out to be the frontrunners, two of whom will face off in the next round in May: foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. And their voters were a mix of the country’s Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek. This is how they first diagnosed the mood of the people and then decided to trim their pitch accordingly. The latest election news is that Abdullah Abdullah is right in front with Ghani behind him. This was unheard-of news last month!

Abdullah Abdullah is from the Tajik hinterland of Panjshir, north of Kabul, and may symbolise in his person the future of Afghanistan: his father was a Pashtun married to a Tajik woman, which allowed him to visit the Pashtun south and southeast in their own language instead of his mother’s Darri (Persian). Sensing the changed mood, Pakistan-based but non-Taliban warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar supported Abdullah and nominated his lieutenant Engineer Ahmad Khan as vice-president under him. Abdullah’s second vice president, who is drawn from the Shia Hazara supporters, is Ustad Mohaqiq. Consequently, he sits atop the second largest vote-bank of the Tajik population as supplemented by the third largest, the Hazara.

The multi-ethnic vote too is split — which is welcome in a democracy — when it comes to Karzai-supported Zalmai Rassoul. He is a Pashtun, but has the support of a faction from the Bamiyan Hazaras in the person of Habiba Sarabi who would be the lady vice-president under him. He has also enlisted the support of Panjshir Tajiks by taking on board the brother of the al-Qaeda-killed leader of the Tajik resistance Ahmad Shah Massoud: Ahmad Zia Massoud. This means that a Pashtun will contest Panjshiri votes with Panjshir-born Abdullah. Interestingly, Rassoul is a Pashtun who can’t speak Pashto very well and competes less well with Abdullah whose Pashto is really good. His consolation is that his Darri is better than Abdullah’s!

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai too has had to mix his appeal after realising that the electorate had become strangely pluralist thanks to the collectively felt fear of the Taliban. He is a true-blue Pashtun but has chosen a warlord from the north to be his vice president, Rashid Dostum, the blood-thirsty Uzbek killer who for a time was used as a balancing factor against the Pashtun of the south and southeast by the Northern Alliance. Dostum attracts support from Central Asian neighbours as well as Turkey, which Ahmadzai could use in the coming days.

The warlords too hoped to garner votes in a milieu clearly opposed to them. Hekmatyar has fielded his lieutenant Qutbuddin Hilal as candidate. Two warlords, Abdur Rabb Rasul Sayyaf — whose name is used as badge of honour by terrorists as far afield as the Philippines — and Ismail Khan of Herat, couldn’t give the people what they wanted: an assurance that they will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with America allowing 20,000 US troops to stay back in Afghanistan after 2014, plus the bases from where drones would keep flying into Pakistan to punish the terrorists.

The three frontrunners — Abdullah, Ghani, Rassoul — have pledged to sign the BSA and are on record as opposing the Taliban and holding Pakistan responsible for terrorism inside Pakistan.

According to the Election Commission of Afghanistan, initial reports showed a turnout of more than 7 million people, nearly 60 per cent of eligible voters, sharply up from the estimated 4.5 million in 2009’s presidential and provincial council elections, “which were marred by widespread vote-rigging”. This time, no one is complaining, not even Abdullah Abdullah, who had walked off from the contest last time when Karzai had got elected.

Is the region out of trouble now that Afghanistan is finally sorted out? Not at all. Most observers think its neighbours will not let Afghanistan be at peace. Pakistan expected to strengthen its Taliban option to “counterbalance” India, which is in the good books of the three election frontrunners who all blame Pakistan.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and now a scholar at the Brookings Institute, said last year: “The Pakistan army has provided safe haven, arms, expertise and other help to Taliban. The elected civilians just go along for the ride or get assassinated like Benazir Bhutto. Nawaz once said if he crossed the ISI-Army-Taliban axis, America would next find his successor to be a bearded jihadist in a uniform”.

Riedel’s ominous prediction about India will likely trigger a reactionary response from Pakistan: “As America draws down in Afghanistan, India will inevitably play a larger role in Afghanistan. It already is constructing Afghan-Iran-India transportation links designed to isolate Pakistan”.

Meanwhile, India too has gone to the polls. Pakistan, already apprehensive after the Afghan election, has misgivings about India’s next “ruler”, the BJP’s Narendra Modi, who may not turn out to be a statesman like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and miss the nuance contained in Pakistan’s easy equation with “Hindu” leaders, starting with Morarji Desai, who got along with Pakistan’s “Islamic” general, Zia-ul-Haq, like a house on fire. The BJP sees validation of its Hindutva in the Muslim hegemony in Pakistan where ideology forces non-Muslims to live like half-citizens.

Fahmida Riaz, the rebellious Pakistani poet who spent seven years in Indian exile, wrote her famous poem on BJP-ruled India: “Tum Bilkul Hum Jaisay Niklay (You turned out to be just like us).”

Will Modi see this subtle “meeting of the Hindu and Muslim minds” on how the modern state should be run; or will he go on squeezing the lemon of Indian rage at the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistani terrorists? In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is getting into trouble with the Pakistan army and the non-state actors by pursuing free trade with India too enthusiastically. Will Modi help him out by overtly reaching some kind of mutual adjustment on Afghanistan?

Is Modi really an “economic animal” as some people impressed with his “Gujarat example” think he is? Anyone in South Asia who thinks “economics” and throws away the blindfolds of nationalism will take Afghanistan as a starting point for the restructuring of the region as a zone of free movement of goods, capital and people. It was not possible after 1947; it is possible today, without destroying the nation-state.

Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’