Election Turmoil, Loss of Interest by International Community Threaten Afghan Stability, Says Afghan Observer

ASTANA – The first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history has been unfolding, grudgingly, since the first round of presidential elections were held on April 5. Round two was held on June 14, with preliminary results announced in early July and the final result to be announced on July 22.

Resident Representative of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (the German Friedrich Ebert Political Foundation) in Afghanistan Adrienne Woltersdorf discussed Afghanistan’s election and the prospects for the county’s development with The Astana Times.

In the election, most Afghans appear to be voting along ethnic lines, Woltersdorf said, and it appears that Ashraf Ghani Achmadazi, a member of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, is in the lead. Afghanistan has almost always been ruled by a Pashtun.

But after what appeared to be a successful first and second round of elections, allegations of fraud and vote rigging are arising, especially from the camp of Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate seen as the representative of the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Tajiks.

“The political landscape of Afghanistan is in turmoil right now, following a stand-off by one of the contenders, Abdullah Abdullah, in this year’s elections. The elections are now seriously marred by allegations of large-scale fraud,” Woltersdorf said. Afghanistan’s Independent Election commission (IEC) has not officially published any results of the last round of voting, although on July 7 it did produce preliminary results putting Ashraf Ghani ahead with 56 percent of the vote.

Observers are very worried about the vote-rigging allegations the Abdullah team has raised. Days after the election, Abdullah refused to recognise the IEC, which he claims is biased in favour of Ghani, Woltersdorf said. Abdullah’s campaign is now staging protests in Kabul and elsewhere to protest what he calls fraudulent elections in at least four out of 34 provinces, Woltersdorf noted.

Abdullah has produced little proof so far, she added. But refusing to abide by the UN-monitored democratic complaints-settlement process will severely damage the democratic process, she said, perhaps so much so that the legitimacy of the winner will be seriously questioned. “This will be detrimental for Afghanistan’s future president and his credibility,” she said. Afghanistan will need a clean government and a successful, democratic transfer of power in order to make it through the transition process and lead after 2014. Right now, the rifts opening up look difficult to heal, she said.’

“Given the post-election crisis we are seeing now, and looking back, it would probably have been the best possible outcome for Afghanistan to be ruled by a broad coalition of Pashtuns tribal leaders and Tajik former war lords and strong men,” the expert noted.

But the international community also bears responsibility here, including the United States. “Their representatives have been pushing the Afghans to follow through with the constitutionally prescribed process and to organise the second round of voting, although a lot of people warned of the imminent dangers that would entail,” Woltersdorf said, adding that the mistrust runs too deep to think of a coalition now.

In addition to rival challengers, the new president will have to deal with outgoing President Karzai.

“Karzai is not prepared to retreat as elder statesmen,” Woltersdorf said. “The master of networking and mediation between groups seems to want to continue playing a decisive role in Afghan politics.”

Negotiating a new format for security and NATO involvement in the country will be the major priority of the next president. Both candidates have said repeatedly that they would make the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S. a priority. However, the agreement will not prevent the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2016, as announced by U.S. President Barack Obama a few weeks ago.

“Many in Kabul interpret this as a de-facto zero option [a total drawdown of troops], something the Afghans have always been afraid of, given the fragility of the Afghan security and the inexperienced Afghan army,” the German expert added.

Some 9,800 U.S. soldiers are expected to stay through 2016, mostly engaged in counterterrorism and training.

“Of course, nearly all other international NATO troops will leave when the U.S. troops leave, leaving behind a vulnerable Afghanistan. So Operation Resolute Support, starting in January 2015, looks now more like a light-weight help mission and not very resolute to most Afghans,” Woltersdorf added. The Afghan army is doing a pretty good job so far, she noted, but Afghans worry whether their army can handle the country’s insurgents.“[E]veryone agrees that the future financial support of ANA [Afghan National Army] by the international community is key.”

This means $4 billion per year needed to support the army of 352,000 – while interest in the country fades and the world faces new crises. Global leaders must learn from what is happening in Iraq, Woltersdorf said: the disintegration of Iraq’s army is a result of a lack of international support and unadressed ethnic tensions. “If this mistake is repeated in Afghanistan, its army might also choose to give in to insurgents. But right now, I think the army is motivated and really wants to defend Afghanistan,” she said.

As for dealing with the Taliban, it’s too early to know what will happen, she said. Neither presidential candidate has presented detailed plans for any new peace process. “A lot of people in Afghanistan would support a kind of negotiation process and a peace deal, but not at any cost. The concrete question here is, can negotiations start, even though the Taliban do not recognise the Afghan constitution? … This is a fundamental question and a future government has do do a much better job of including various stake holders in the process than Karzai did,” she said.

“[T]he security situation within the country varies enormously, not only from region to region, but even from district to district. Therefore it is difficult to jump to any general conclusion,” Woltersdorf believes. Some areas have been completely reclaimed by the Taliban after international troops left, others have become more peaceful. “I think the best bet is to assume that large parts of the national territory will remain in unsafe conditions. This is not only related to Taliban, but also to the general weakness of the government, to bad governance, massive corruption, militias and growing criminal networks involved in the illicit drug production and trade.”

One-dimensional solutions will not resolve Afghanistan’s manifold security issues. Concerted effort on every level will be needed to stabilise the country, and economic development will have to play a major role, Woltersdorf said.

“Many young Afghans join the insurgency because they have no other economic prospects. That is especially true in the border regions where no economic development has taken place in decades,” she said. “[T]he security situation might not deteriorate because of the NATO-International Security Assistance Forces retreat, but it might, in the medium term, deteriorate if the government is not able to offer education and economic opportunities and instead leaves large parts of the provinces to themselves, to deal with  criminals and the growing drug traffic. Of course, for better policies the Afghan government will in turn need the financial support of the international community. So, hopefully, they will not turn their backs on Kabul.”

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