The Interplay Of US, Pakistan and Afghan Election Cycles and Reconciliation in Afghanistan

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Context

As the search for endgame in Afghanistan picks steam, the election cycle of Pakistan is also picking pace, just as it is in US. The attention of Pakistan’s politicians is shifting to politicking at a time when it should be on dealing with the Afghan transition and worsening economic prospects. Presidential elections are slated for November 2012 in US, for 2013 in Pakistan, and for 2014 in Afghanistan. The political strategies that President Karzai, Zardari and Obama develop to deal with their domestic challenges would significantly influence the Afghan reconciliation.

Analysis

President Karzai

The fate of President Hamid Karzai is most at stake from the peace process and US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although his relation with the US has been a fluctuating affair, it’s no secret that Karzai would not have survived without the protection and patronage of the US. The charges of corruption and controversy surrounding the results of last Afghan election diminish his credibility. Many would comment that his continuing as the president perhaps is most attributable to the lack of a viable alternative. However, that would be underestimating his strengths.

Skillfully navigating the complex regional tribal and ethnic landscape has been Karzai’s strongest ability. Moreover, preventing the rise of a competitor is as much a tradition in tribal societies as it is in the modern day politics, and he has successfully managed that. Absence of an alternative, keeps the coalition forces dependent on Karzai.

Additionally, he has masterfully exploited the sensitivities of Pakistan’s relations with India and the US. The recently agreed Afghanistan-India strategic deal is a case in point. When it comes to connecting with Afghans, Karzai has consistently projected Pakistan as desiring to dominate them and has raised the issue of civilian causalities when it comes to NATO. In short, Karzai benefits from prolonging the endgame, as oppose to quickening the peace process that can potentially end his political career as well.

President Obama

There would be no qualms about how global economic realities are pushing Europe and US for an early resolution of the Afghan situation. As the elections approach in US, the public attention would become more attuned to matters of jobs and less to foreign wars. Since the elimination of Osama bin Laden, it has become harder and harder to justify the hike in defense spending that had followed 911. These pressures are pushing US to reduce its foreign spending and shrink American military presence abroad. The US Congress has already warned to cut foreign aid to Egypt, Palestinian Authority and Pakistan because these countries have lately failed to look after the foreign policy interests of the US.

In October, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had threatened to veto the UN reform bill proposed by House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. In a letter to the chairwoman, Clinton said the” bill mandates actions that would severely limit the United States’ participation in the United Nations, damaging longstanding treaty commitments under the United Nations Charter and gravely harming US national interests.” It is clear that differences are growing between the Administration and the Congress as ‘isolationist’ tendencies gain. Under these circumstances, it’s the domestic economic realities that will shape President Obama’s re-election strategy.

As the election timeframe nears in the US, President Obama finds himself with the daunting task of finding the right balance between economic and national security. He went with the hardliners early on by allowing a surge, and this makes it easier for him to now take the route of a political solution and to focus on improving the economy. At the time of the unveiling of new Afghan Strategy, in December 2010, President Obama had commented:

“Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills…So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.”

President Zardari

As the economic and political realities force US to seek speedy settlement in Afghanistan, its reliance on Pakistan has increased but its leverage has decreased. Prime Minister Gilani recently commented that his government needs political breathing space to cooperate further with US. The political and military setups no longer have this room to continue with the kinetic approach, especially after the Raymond Davis incident and the Osama operation. This probably is one of the other stark facts pushing US towards a political solution.

For President Zardari and Pakistan Peoples Party, a wining re-election strategy would mean to focus more on transforming the economic prospects of the country, battered acutely by the nations fight against terrorism, energy shortages and floods. The improvement in Pakistan-India relations and granting of the MFN status to India is a step in that direction. However, it’s unlikely the dividends from the agreement would start trickling in fast enough to improve the public opinion, and counter the negative perception caused by accusations of rampant corruption. These dynamics, in turn, would stress on US to be more accommodating towards the leading contenders in the emerging political landscape of Pakistan, and attempt to influence the position of these players as it relates to the war against extremists. This is going to be a hard sell, especially when these emerging players will likely excel by exploiting the negative perceptions created by American policies in the region.

Furthermore, as the election cycle gets going in Pakistan, the politicians are increasingly distracted with politicking and ‘horse-trading’. Just as the US would like Pakistan to focus on Afghanistan and the extremists, it would be least inclined to do so. This would inadvertently increase reliance on the military, to provide continuity during this crucial phase of the Afghan conflict.

Conclusion

While the US is moving to a political solution, its closest allies may not be in a position to fully support this shift mainly due their domestic realities. President Karzai does not necessarily benefit from speeding up the political solution; therefore, his strategy is likely to be overtly cooperative but covertly resistant.

Zardari, on the other hand, lacks political capital to be any more helpful than his administration has already been in the fight against extremists.
 Dismal domestic economic prospects are likely to cause Zardari to become more supportive towards US goals, as compared to the military, in hopes that this works in his favor. Although it’s clear, his ability to deliver on any of the promises is minimal. This increases President Obama’s reliance on Pakistan Army to help in the Afghan reconciliation process and, in turn, his reelection bid.