Rahimullah Yusufzai Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The Afghan Taliban have started implementing their threat to disrupt Afghanistan's second presidential election scheduled for August 20. On August 8, the bazaar in Andar town in Ghazni province with about 600 shops closed down following a threat by the militants made through shabnamas, or night-letters. This could happen in other towns and villages in southern and eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban maintain a strong presence.
According to media reports, the shopkeepers in Andar were ordered to shut their shops till the presidential poll. Those defying the order were threatened with death. Traders and shopkeepers in Andar unanimously decided to comply with Taliban orders as the government was weak in the area and in no position to protect the people from the militants. As a shopkeeper, Abdul Razzak, in Andar noted, the Taliban were providing security to the people in the area and the latter had no choice but to follow the militants' orders. He felt it will not be possible to hold peaceful polls anywhere in Ghazni province except the heavily-guarded Ghazni city.
However, the Taliban are in no position to impede the presidential poll, or the provincial council election that is being held simultaneously on August 20, in most parts of Afghanistan. Polls could take place in most Afghan cities and in much of northern, central and western Afghanistan in relatively peaceful conditions. The Taliban are certainly stronger now and in a much better position to interfere with the polling process compared to the 2004 presidential election when they couldn't do much to obstruct the polls. But they are unlikely to attack polling stations as it means harming voters and further alienating the civilian population, which is already wary of the violent ways of the Taliban. The Taliban also didn't attack polling stations in previous Afghan elections for the president, parliament and provincial councils.
The July 30 announcement by the so-called "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the name given by the Taliban to their government and state while in power from 1996-2001, didn't threaten attacks on polling stations directly. Instead, it called on the Afghans to boycott "the American process of elections" and directed the Taliban fighters to impede the polls, launch attacks against enemy centres and block roads a day before the polling date to prevent voters from casting their votes. By describing the elections as a US-orchestrated sham, the Taliban were hoping to discredit the process and question the legitimacy of the newly elected president. The Taliban declaration pointed out that up to 10,000 US, British and other NATO troops recently launched an operation in only one province, Helmand, to clear it of the militants and create stable conditions for holding the election there. It stressed that this showed that it was an "American process of elections" and not a free and fair Afghan process as the polls were being held in presence of western occupation forces.
Taking cognisance of the Taliban threat, the special UN envoy for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, has called on the militants to let people vote. Describing the coming vote as the most complicated elections that he had seen, he said the UN was still hoping that the process would be credible. However, he warned that the turnout on voting day would be affected by security concerns due to Taliban threats. He also argued that Afghanistan due to its ongoing conflict could not be expected to meet the elections standards of other countries. His concerns show that the UN is increasingly worried about the credibility of the coming polls if the turnout was low and in case there were allegations of rigging. Already, a controversy has erupted in Afghanistan following comments by supporters of one of the main presidential candidates, Dr Abdullah, that people would come armed with weapons to hold protests in case President Hamid Karzai won the election. Their argument was that Karzai had become so unpopular that he could not win and only a rigged election could bring him victory. In the same breath, they maintained that a loss for Dr Abdullah would be unacceptable.
Such comments could trigger violence if the losers don't get the desired outcome in the polls. This will be a more likely scenario in a close contest. It is true that President Karzai's popularity has gone down and his major sponsors, the US and its western allies, have lost faith in his ability to steer Afghanistan out of its woes, tackle corruption and reduce his dependence on the warlords. Being in power, he is also vulnerable to allegations of misusing state resources and machinery to affect the result of the election. However, Dr Abdullah has a limited appeal among the electorate due to Afghanistan's ethnicity-dominated politics. Despite being half-Pashtun, he is largely seen as a candidate of the Tajiks, the second biggest ethnic group after the majority Pashtuns. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, may have succeeded in splitting the Tajik vote by making former defence minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim his vice-presidential candidate. Despite his controversial past as a mujahidin commander and warlord accused of human rights abuses, the madressah-educated Fahim is capable of attracting substantial Tajik votes and denying Dr Abdullah any chances of victory.
Unlike the 2004 presidential election, though, the August 20 vote isn't going to be a largely ethnic-based poll. In that election, Mohammad Younis Qanuni was the candidate of the Tajiks, Mohammad Mohaqiq of the Shiite Hazaras and General Abdul Rasheed Dostum of the Uzbeks. Hamid Karzai was the major Pashtun candidate. All of them primarily got votes from their fellow Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Pashtuns and the number of the votes polled by them in most cases roughly corresponded with the percentage of population of their ethnic community in the country.
Karzai polled 55.2 per cent of the vote, which should be equal or slightly more than the percentage of the Pashtun population in Afghanistan. Though the UN has put the Pashtun population at 40 per cent, this figure is disputed by the Pashtuns and isn't credible in absence of a proper census in war-ravaged Afghanistan. It is true that Karzai also got non-Pashtun votes and not all Pashtuns voted for him in 2004, but the fact remains that Pashtun voters rallied to vote for him to deny victory to his main challenger Younis Qanuni, who polled 16.3 per cent of the vote. The Pashtuns, who have monopolised power in Afghanistan since creating the state in 1747 through the sword of Ahmad Shah Abdali, are unlikely to vote for a non-Pashtun candidate again this time and this will ensure defeat for Dr Abdullah. The only chance for Dr Abdullah to win the polls is to hope that the Pashtun vote would be split between the two main Pashtun candidates, Hamid Karzai and his former finance minister Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. That is unlikely to happen as voters worldwide, among them the Afghan Pashtuns, almost always make the right decision and vote for a winning candidate instead of wasting their ballot by voting for a likely loser.
Despite his capabilities, Dr Ashraf Ghani could likely turn out to be that likely loser. The 60-year old US-educated academic and banker is highly qualified and experienced, having taught in American universities and served in the World Bank. He also functioned as Afghanistan's finance minister, overseeing the introduction of the country's new currency in place of the worthless Afghani and reviving the banking system. Subsequently, he remained vice-chancellor of Kabul University. He is perhaps the only candidate with a well-thought out and elaborate plan to resolve Afghanistan's myriad problems and undertake rebuilding and development projects. His speaking skills and knowledge probably forced Karzai not to appear with him and Dr Abdullah in a presidential candidates' debate on the popular Tolu TV programme in Kabul.
Though some analysts believe Dr Ashraf Ghani could turn out to be the dark horse in the election and his large Ahmadzai Pashtun tribe is doing everything to make him win the poll, the circumstances still favour the incumbent Karzai. But Karzai's likely victory, in the second round perhaps as getting the required 50 per cent in the first round may be beyond his reach this time, would not resolve any issue or put Afghanistan on the path of peace and stability. Rather, his re-election could further destabilise the country and make it difficult for its various power-brokers, warlords and defeated candidates to cooperate with each other in future.