Afghanistan: A Test for Durability
Nikolai BOBKIN | 29.01.2014 | OPINION

Afghanistan: A Test for Durability

The presidential elections which are to be held in Afghanistan in April 2014 will be a serious test for Kabul and the states which support the current Afghan regime. 80% of Afghans believe that it is simply dangerous to go to the polls. On the day of the last parliamentary elections in Afghanistan (October 2010) dozens of people were killed and injured. 

On January 17 in the diplomatic quarter, a suicide bomber caused an explosion in front of the entrance to a Lebanese restaurant, after which two militants burst into the restaurant through the back door and opened fire on customers. According to the latest statistics, there are a total of 21 dead, most of them foreigners. Among the dead is Russian diplomat Vadim Nazarov, an officer of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Russia condemned the terrorist attack and those behind it, and the Taliban has taken responsibility for the attack. Taliban leaders have refused an invitation to take part in the presidential elections and promise to sabotage them.

Since October 2004 the post of President of Afghanistan has been held for two five-year terms by Hamid Karzai, who was elected, but under the conditions of foreign occupation. This time, on the threshold of the withdrawal of international forces, the situation with regard to holding nationwide elections remains critical. Conditions in the country are still unstable, and Afghan leadership is encountering enormous difficulties, meeting with resistance from a significant part of the country's population. Nonetheless, the technical preparations for the presidential elections have begun even without any certainty that they can be conducted safely.

27 people entered the presidential race. The appearance of a final list of candidates provided a clearer picture of the political competition which continues to come into sharper focus. After the Electoral Commission had completed the verification process, a preliminary list of 11 presidential candidates who were found to have met constitutional and legal requirements was published. 16 candidates were disqualified, including the only woman, as well as several with dual citizenship. This time a new requirement that each candidate obtain the support of 100,000 voters from at least 20 provinces of Afghanistan was made.

The Electoral Commission worked on updating the list of registered voters. On a district level over 3 million new voter cards were issued; about 30% of them were received by women. The Ministry of the Interior has started hiring and training 13,000 female inspectors who will help make access safer for woman voters. For security reasons four districts (one in Zabul province, one in Ghazni province and two in Helmand province) were not included in the Electoral Commission's updating of the registered voter list. There is no certainty that voting will take place at all in these regions; almost a quarter of Afghanistan is under the control of the Taliban and other Afghan parties and groups which are making terrorist threats against election personnel, candidates and their supporters.

An unexpected recent event was a call from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan (IPA), for his supporters to take part in the election. The IPA did not put forth a candidate "due to the presence of occupying forces in the country", but it still, said Hekmatyar, has the right to support candidates close to the party. Despite this change in the position of the IPA, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid excludes the possibility of a schism in their ranks on the issue of their position on the April elections. The Talibs still refuse any contacts with the various candidates and the administration of President Karzai. 

There is also a presidential candidate who is ideologically close to Hekmatyar among those who oppose both Karzai and the Talibs. This is Rasul Sayyaf, a Pashtun from the province of Laghman and one of Afghanistan's most authoritative Islamic politicians who has many years of experience leading the Mujahedin faction Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan in the years of Soviet occupation. In February 1989 he was elected as the first prime minister of the transitional Mujahedin government, and then cooperated closely with Rabbani and Hekmatyar. Sayyaf was always an opponent of the Taliban movement and fought against the Taliban with the Northern Alliance, which once again demonstrates the instability of intra-Afghan alliances. 

Despite the fact that before registering to participate in the elections Sayyaf officially held a position of little significance in the lower house of the Afghan parliament, he has not lost his status as one of the country's most conservative and authoritative imams. This is confirmed by the acquiescence of field commander Ismail Khan to become Sayyaf's first vice president. Ismail Khan's traditional patrimony has for decades been the western provinces of Afghanistan bordering on Iran, with their center in the city of Herat. Such a duet could compete with Karzai's protégé, especially since the duet has already declared its commitment to strengthening Afghanistan's ties with NATO countries. It is entirely likely that Sayyaf's signature could appear on the Afghan-American security agreement which Karzai refuses to sign before the new presidential election. It is unlikely that under his administration one could expect any serious changes in the country's political system, and the Taliban would only be able to count on gaining a relatively small share in governing the state.

One cannot completely rule out the possibility that a representative of one of Afghanistan's non-Pashtun ethnicities could win the election. In the upper house of Afghanistan's parliament (the House of Elders), the proportion of Pashtuns and Tajiks is almost equal (36 and 33, respectively), and if one takes into account representatives of all the non-Pashtun diasporas, the Pashtuns are well in the minority (36 out of 102). The traditional allies of the Tajiks in elections, the Hazara, participate actively in political life. For example, all the members of the Afghan parliament from the Ghazni province are currently Hazara, and their share in the House of the People after the last elections increased by almost 70%. At the 2010 parliamentary elections over 2500 candidates competed for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament; as a result of the voting, the Pashtuns lost some of their seats compared with the previous parliamentary elections in 2005 and no longer have a majority of the votes.

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan (2001-2006) Abdullah Abdullah could give Sayyaf some serious competition. He is considered an ethnic Tajik, but he is actually half Pashtun. His father was a Pashtun born in Kandahar, and his mother was a Tajik born in Panjshir. At the last presidential election Abdullah received 30% of the votes; after lengthy controversy he was admitted to the second round (Karzai had received 49.6%), but he dropped out of the race 7 days before the election. Officially it was announced that Karzai had received an absolute majority of the votes (over 3 million), but according to European Union observers no more than 1.8 million people voted for him. Some polling places were closed on election day due to Taliban attacks, while others were blocked by Karzai's supporters. International observers expressed doubt in the free and fair nature of the elections, and many Afghans to this day consider Abdullah's defeat a falsification. One way or another, it is too early to predict a victory for Karzai's "successor", but the threat to security in such an event is inevitable.

The Afghan government and the Taliban remain irreconcilable. The main demand of the Taliban is the complete liberation of Afghanistan from foreign occupation. Taliban leaders do not even see Karzai's government as a party to be negotiated with and have already announced that they will not recognize the results of the presidential elections and will continue to bear arms against Afghan and international forces...