A Crown Of Thorns – S Iftikhar Murshed

Yesterday’s runoff presidential election in Afghanistan was a landmark event. Incurable optimists are ecstatic because “power will be transferred democratically for the first time ever” in the sordid blood-drenched history of the country from one elected president to his successor. Self-styled Afghan experts are almost certain that Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the ophthalmologist who served as Hamid Karzai’s foreign minister from 2001 to 2005, will emerge as the winner. 

But a more balanced assessment is that it is unwise to make such hasty predictions. Several analysts point out that the other contender, Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is a hugely respected former finance minister and could well have garnered substantial support of the Pakhtuns – the largest ethnic group in the country to which he belongs. 

All this is purely speculative and, therefore, futile. The only sensible comment was that of Homayoun Assefy, a brother-in-law of the late King Zahir Shah: “I pity whoever wins this election. The poor guy will have a really crushing task ahead” – a crown of thorns awaits the victor.

The outcome will be known in 18 days. As per the schedule chalked out by the independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, preliminary results will be announced on July 2. The next two weeks have been set aside for the registration of complaints which will be verified and decided by July 16 and the final certified outcome of the polls will be announced on July 22. Under Afghan election law, the winner will be sworn in on August 2 – exactly 30 days after the announcement of the preliminary results.

Despite the usual allegations of voting improprieties, the Afghan Election Commission, unlike its Pakistani counterpart, acquitted itself admirably. All the deadlines were met starting with the registration of presidential nominations from September 16, 2013 to October 6. A total of 27 candidates submitted their papers which were thoroughly scrutinised, and, on October 22, 16 were disqualified. No questions were asked because the rules were scrupulously followed. Three others dropped out of the race leaving only eight contenders in the field for the first round of balloting on April 5. 

Here again the same clockwork efficiency was on display. The preliminary results were announced bang on time on April 26 and the final certified outcome was made public on May 15. The details showed that 7,018,049 Afghans cast their ballots in the first round – 50 percent more than the turnout in the 2009 presidential election. An impressive 36 percent of the voters were women and this signified a resounding rejection of the Taliban worldview. 

Dr Abdullah won 2,972,141 or 45 percent of the vote followed by Ashraf Ghani who secured 31.56 percent or 2,084,547 votes. Zalmai Rassoul, foreign minister in the Karzai regime from January 2010 to October 2013, trailed at a distant third place with 11.4 percent of the vote. Rassoul, an ethnic Pakhtun from the Barakzai tribe, immediately pledged support for Abdullah in the runoff which had become mandatory because none of the candidates had won more than 50 percent of the vote as required under the Afghan election law.

Abdullah Abdullah was jubilant and boasted that he would sweep the second round hands down. In an obvious reference to Ashraf Ghani he said, “Anyway, the story is over – the others are 14 percent or 13.5 percent behind” and then added that some of the other former presidential candidates had assured him of their support. 

Besides Zalmai Rassoul, these included Abdul Rasul Sayyaf who secured 7.04 percent or 465,207 votes in the first round and Gul Agha Sherzai with 1.57 percent of the total votes. The three are Pakhtuns, and some commentators believe that this could be a sign that ethnicity is no longer a major factor in Afghan politics.

But despite Zalmai Rassoul’s backing for Abdullah in the runoff, many of his supporters refused to follow suit and it is, therefore, difficult to predict the final outcome. The ethnic fault lines of Afghanistan run deep and cannot be brushed under the rug. The Pakhtuns see themselves as marginalised and Abdullah has been at pains to project himself as an ethnic Tajik even though he is half Pakhtun.

Even Homayoun Assefy, a blue-blooded Pakhtun, was unaware about this when he decided to team up with Dr Abdullah as vice-presidential candidate in the 2009 election. He disclosed: “I only found out two months later. Had I known that Abdullah’s father was a Pakhtun, my joining the ticket would not have made any sense. The idea was to have ethnic balance.” 

I met Abdullah Abdullah when I led our delegation to the Tashkent Six plus Two meeting convened by President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan on July 20-21, 1999. The Six-plus-Two mechanism was Pakistan’s brainchild and envisaged an intra-Afghan dialogue in which Afghanistan’s six immediate neighbours plus the US and Russia would participate as observers. 

The concept was, however, hijacked by the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, who reduced it to a series of futile confabulations in New York without the Afghan factions. The Uzbek initiative was, therefore, significant because it was the first time ever that the Northern Alliance and the Taliban were invited and faced each other at the negotiating table. It was quite another matter that they snarled at each other instead of engaging in any dialogue. 

Dr Abdullah was a member of the Northern Alliance delegation and he came across at the plenary as well as in the course of several conversations with me as a person who was as bitter about Pakistan as he was in his hatred of the Taliban. Nothing has changed in the 15 years since then. He is still as venomous about Pakistan as he was in that sultry summer in Tashkent.

In the run-up to the presidential election, Afghanistan’s Tolo TV organised three debates among the candidates on February 4, February 18 and March 4. The last in the series was particularly relevant inasmuch as it was confined to Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul and the exclusive focus was foreign policy.

All three accused Islamabad of destabilising Afghanistan through the Taliban. Abdullah did not mince words and said that Pakistan was using the Taliban “as a tool for foreign policy.” Ashraf Ghani chimed in that steps had to be taken to prevent Islamabad from undermining Afghanistan’s sovereignty through proxies. These accusations have been made often enough and have lost their sheen because no corroborative evidence has ever been provided.

Yet not a word was said about the weapons and training that Iran has been providing to the Taliban. This was disclosed by the former Nato commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, in 2010 and confirmed by the British foreign secretary the next year. The reason for Kabul’s silence is that Tehran has successfully manipulated Afghan public opinion. According to Reuters, it funds at least eight major newspapers and controls a third of the media in Afghanistan.

The three participants in the debate unhesitatingly supported the immediate conclusion of the Bilateral Security Agreement to enable a small Nato/US contingent to remain in Afghanistan after foreign forces are withdrawn by the end of this year. But this will only provide a temporary respite to Kabul because, in an unexpected reversal of policy, President Obama has announced that there will be no American military presence in Afghanistan after 2016.

This means that the next Afghan president will have less than 18 months to bring the insurgency that has been raging for the last 13 years to an end. The hideous possibility of a descent into complete chaos looms large. The problem is compounded because 60 percent of Afghanistan’s $19 billion GDP is generated through external assistance as is 90 percent of its annual budget. This is likely to be sharply reduced because of donor fatigue and the consequences will be disastrous. 

Under the circumstances, it is immaterial who emerges as the winner in the presidential race. Homayoun Assefy was absolutely right when he said that the victor can only be pitied.