At stake in Afghan vote: presidential vision, and legitimacy

Why We Wrote This

The struggle for democracy doesn't end with the right to vote. To navigate Afghanistan’s future as it confronts the Taliban, the president elected Saturday will also need to be seen as legitimate.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
An election commission worker in Kabul, Afghanistan, prepares ballot boxes for Saturday's presidential election, Sept. 26, 2019.

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The stakes could hardly be higher in Afghanistan’s presidential election Saturday. With the U.S. having suspended nearly a year of talks with the Taliban, responsibility for finding peace now falls more squarely on the Kabul government. Whoever wins Saturday will have to use the legitimacy they gain from it to preserve the Afghan state from further Taliban military advances.

Threats to security are very much in play. The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the vote, and have bombed election rallies. Face-to-face campaigning has been limited. Key candidates have been forced to convene virtual rallies, often addressing their supporters via video link. Already the security clampdown has begun in Kabul and other urban centers, and from senior officials to mosque clerics, everyone except the Taliban have called for a large turnout.

“The Taliban will still say that it is not a legitimate government, that it is not a legitimate president, that only a few urban centers voted ... and that it was fraudulent,” says Masood Karokhail, head of a Kabul-based group that facilitates peace and rebuilding efforts. “So we are all a bit skeptical about the result, and that’s what scares me.”

Afghanistan has never seen a vote like it.

The presidential election being held Saturday – largely in urban ‘bubbles’ – is defined by insecurity, doubt about the integrity of the result, and concern it might extend Afghanistan’s forever war, not end it.

Campaign posters plaster the capital, but Taliban insurgents have vowed to disrupt the delayed vote, have bombed election rallies, and said the process serves only “the ego of a limited number of sham politicians” and wastes “time, money, and resources.”

Key candidates have been forced to convene virtual rallies, often addressing their supporters via video link, or speaking to small, hand-picked groups from the safety of fortified compounds.

Actual face-to-face campaigning has been limited, especially for President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival, the country’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah. The two have been bound by an awkward, power-sharing arrangement brokered by the United States since they came out on top of the last disputed presidential contest in 2014.

But this time the stakes could not be higher for Afghanistan’s future. Whoever wins this vote will have to use the legitimacy they gain from it – tempered by the credibility they lose, depending on the rancor over the outcome – to preserve the Afghan state from further Taliban military advances and chronic insecurity, and possibly negotiate a cease-fire and peace deal.

Responsibility for finding peace now falls more squarely on Kabul, after President Donald Trump this month abruptly ended nearly a year of U.S.-Taliban talks to end America’s longest-ever war. So far, the Taliban refuse to talk to what they dismiss as a corrupt “puppet” government.

Warnings about fraud

“Will the election give the legitimacy to the president?” asks Masood Karokhail, head of The Liaison Office, a Kabul-based group that facilitates peace and rebuilding efforts.

“The Taliban will still say that it is not a legitimate government, that it is not a legitimate president, that only a few urban centers voted, even that there were only one million or two million votes, and that it was fraudulent,” says Mr. Karokhail. “So we are all a bit skeptical about the result, and that’s what scares me.”

Many of the 16 candidates have already issued warnings about fraud, and analysts expect technical difficulties with biometric and other voter data. Parliamentary elections last October, delayed for three years, were marred by violence and irregularities, to the extent that Mr. Ghani called them a “catastrophe.”

Already the security clampdown has begun in Kabul and other urban centers, and from senior officials to mosque clerics, everyone except the Taliban have called for a large turnout.

“This time around security is a lot worse, so the number of voters has shrunk,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be named. “People might think, ‘Ghani’s going to win,’ or, ‘Ghani’s going to commit fraud and he’s going to win anyways.’ I think a lot of people are not going to show up.”

Corruption is so pervasive that the U.S. last week cut more than $160 million in direct funding, the bulk of which was earmarked for a large energy project, and the remainder for Afghanistan’s procurement authority.

“We stand against those who exploit their positions of power and influence to deprive the Afghan people of the benefits of foreign assistance and a more prosperous future,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

The U.S. also suspended cooperation with an official body monitoring corruption, saying it is “incapable of being a partner.”

Differences on peacemaking

Insecurity has meant that some 2,000 polling stations out of 7,400 will be closed Saturday, most of them in Taliban-controlled areas. Nearly 10 million Afghans are registered to vote, but only 39% voted last October, compared with 58% in the first round of the last presidential election in 2014.

For those who do show up at the polls, the top contenders see their role in peacemaking differently. Mr. Ghani, an economist and former World Bank official, has packed his administration with young technocrats, and worked to break tribal links inside government.

But he strongly took issue with the U.S. approach of directly negotiating with the Taliban. He criticized the resulting withdrawal agreement, in which his government played no part, before Mr. Trump nixed it.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Election posters for presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah are draped over a building under construction, on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 23, 2019. Millions of Afghans are expected to vote Saturday, but security is expected to be an issue with the Taliban warning voters to say away from the polls.

Mr. Abdullah was a senior member of the Northern Alliance that, backed by the U.S. military in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, forced the Taliban from power in late 2001. He has failed to win previous presidential contests. But before the latest U.S.-Taliban talks collapsed, he made clear he was willing – if he won the presidency – to step down, if necessary, for peace.

Mr. Abdullah “would give up his presidency to make way for an interim government.... He is not as power-hungry as Ghani is,” says the Western official.

“Ghani seems very adamant that he will win, stay for another five years, then his peace plan will be implemented,” says the official. “So the Taliban are concerned, rightfully so, because they are saying: ‘Well, we are not surrendering. This is going to be a new situation, so your peace plan we’re not really interested in.’ And [for] people who are suffering, Afghan security forces, another five years until there is actual peace, is not going to be possible.”

Civilian casualties

The toll has already been high. Earlier this year, in a bid to show that Afghans were taking the lead from foreign troops in the fight against Taliban and Islamic State militants, Mr. Ghani said 45,000 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed since he became president.

Civilians are often caught in the fighting, or have been targeted outright by the Taliban or ISIS. The United Nations stated that in 2019, for the first time, more civilians have been killed by the U.S. and Afghan forces than by insurgents.

Triumphant after the collapse of the U.S.-Taliban talks, an Afghan government spokesman suggested the Taliban “honeymoon” was over.

But Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the opposite was true, claiming that 70% of Afghan territory “is with us,” and noting that the arch-conservative militants control the levers of violence.

“When they go to the Kabul Airport, which is a few kilometers from the presidential palace, they go in a helicopter,” Mr. Shaheen told Al Jazeera less than a week after the talks halted.

“That means we are also prevalent in Kabul city. So, whose honeymoon is over?” he said. “It is in Kabul, [where] all the NGOs and people ... want our permission, and we facilitate NGO movement from one province to the other, even in Kabul city. So you can now imagine whose honeymoon is over, [and who are] the real people of the country, the master of the country.”

While some lessons have been learned from previous election failings – such as pre-positioning voting materials early enough to avoid Taliban interdiction – poor preparation of biometric verification “suggest the likelihood of renewed chaos,” notes a report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank.

“Urban warfare”

Chronic insecurity has also changed the dynamic, with violence since 2014 causing urban centers to swell, says The Liaison Office’s Mr. Karokhail.

“This election, broadly speaking, will be fought in urban centers. It’s going to be urban warfare,” says Mr. Karokhail. “But in the provinces it is very difficult to judge, because some districts are very insecure. Let’s say polling stations in the district center may be secure, but how do you come to them from your village, which may be under Taliban control?”

Even if people manage to vote, they will return to their Taliban-controlled village with fingers dyed with election ink, he says, and there have been past reports of finger cutting. Campaigns have never been more restricted in their ability to reach voters.

“The election is disconnected, and that’s where the actors who are creating insecurity in Afghanistan are successful in creating democracy as something more you watch on television and your mobile phone rather than interacting physically with it,” says Mr. Karokhail.

“The gap – because of insecurity – has increased, and that’s another reason why the gap between the state and the population is increasing,” he says. “A governor cannot openly visit the shops, and the shopkeepers cannot easily access the governor.” After “maybe 10 shopkeepers, the 11th may be a suicide bomber.”

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