The Afghan Election and Its Implications for the AfPak Strategy

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As the date for the Afghan election approaches, a number of questions and scenarios are being discussed regarding the results of the outcome. The elections unquestionably carry serious implications for the future of America’s AfPak policy.

An election run-off might complicate matters during this critical phase of the war. Common sense suggests that continuity at the political level would serve the interests of Afghanistan better than confusion, as the American surge falls into place. There are reports that General McChrystal, in his delayed assessment of the war in Afghanistan, may request doubling the number of troops to be used in the conflict.

If there were any lessons to be learned from the election held in Pakistan earlier this year, it was that the removal of Musharraf resulted in a radical change in the tactics and strategies employed by the country against the Taliban. Ironically, the ensuing domestic political confusion did not hamper, but actually helped, the Pakistani military meet its goals regarding the Taliban.

This context is important while we proceed to examine the elections and how they are impacted by regional and global political dynamics.

Analysis

How does one bring about change in a country where all the cards appear stacked against success? This question best sums up the geopolitical tragedy of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a classic example of a nation in which the balance of foreign influences and interests, not internal factors, are critical in determining who rules. Thus the outcome of these elections will be decided largely by the interaction of regional powers – Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and India – as well as by the US, NATO, Russia and China, at the global level.

The media reports regarding public opinion suggest that Hamid Karzai will likely receive only plurality of the vote, perhaps 45%, followed by Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, meaning that there will probably be a run-off. With Dostum (of Uzbek), Ismail Khan (Herat), Mohammad Qasim Fahim (Tajik) and Khalil Karimi (Hazara) as allies, Karzai has considerably bolstered his election prospects, despite the fact that he is domestically unpopular. In the absence of a better alternative, Pakistan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would probably turn to him. Furthermore, Karzai has the kind of relationship with the Taliban which would make it easier for peace talks to take place. To what degree the US supports Karzai is a question mark.

An improved relationship between the United States and Iran is vital to a stable Afghanistan. A scenario where India and Pakistan were less wary of each another would also be a welcome development. The developing US-Russia rivalry is a third variable that could also impact Afghan politics and elections. A fourth is China’s concern over the increasing number of foreign troops in Afghanistan and the presence of extremists in FATA, which it suspects of ties with the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region.

The Afghanistan presidential election provided enough evidence for us to deduce certain facts about public sentiment in the country. First, Afghans are increasingly skeptical of the effectiveness of the coalition forces in Afghanistan and want more autonomy. Secondly, some of the candidates have aroused latent nationalistic feeling by discussing Pakistan’s dubious relationship with the Taliban and the status of the sensitive Durand Line. Thirdly, the great majority of Afghans are for commencing negotiations with the Taliban.

Such sentiments don’t jive with the major premise of the AfPak policy, which is greater cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan in countering the aggressions of the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The new policy is geared more towards negotiations with those Taliban elements who wish to part ways with Al-Qaeda. Advocates of AfPak assert that whatever its past record, Pakistan has now roused itself and is taking the fight to the Taliban, particularly those Taliban that are acting against the Pakistani state. The Obama Administration realizes that without the involvement of regional players and consideration of their security interests, Afghanistan cannot be pacified.

It is to the Al-Qaeda’s advantage to sow and exploit as many divisions, ethnic and/or religious, as it can, so as to make implementation of the AfPak strategy as difficult as possible. Furthermore, it might try to create a Mumbai-style incident so as to distract Pakistan. The warning issued by Indian Prime Minister two days ago against a new terrorist attack from Pakistan was to avert any such possibility. How much influence the Al-Qaeda still exercises in Iraq can also be tested by a serious escalation of violence there, which also has the potential to increase tensions between Iran and the United States.

Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban, sensing the above-mentioned domestic political undercurrents in Afghanistan, appears to becoming more insistent in their demands for a timeline for the exodus of foreign forces before negotiations can occur. The recent statements by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hizb-e-Islami are evidence of this. Moreover, the Afghan Taliban wants to use violence to intimidate voters, making the election a no-show. Lastly, by complicating the security situation in, and thwarting planned political arrangements for, the country, the Taliban wants to compel the coalition forces to see their efforts as futile, cut the best possible deal in their favor, and leave.

The death of Baitullah Mehsud and subsequent reports of infighting amongst various Taliban factions in FATA are nasty blows to the Afghan Taliban at this crucial juncture. How much impact they will have on the Afghan Taliban’s fighting machine, however, remains to be seen.

This much can be said with near certainty: whatever the outcome of the Afghanistan elections, all indicators point to an escalation in fighting in Afghanistan.

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