Afghanistan's presidential election campaign – the third running action-packed festival of vote-buying, ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of citizens – began this week with a wide-open field. The only sure thing is that mercurial President Hamid Karzai will be out of power when the dust settles, thanks to a term-limit in the country's constitution.
Karzai's term is ending amid questions about whether the US and NATO will be allowed to keep any forces in the country beyond the end of the year. Karzai has refused to sign an agreement making that possible, saying the decision should be made by his successor.
Meanwhile the Taliban is still potent and the country relies economically on foreign aid and a booming opium industry. After over $100 billion spent on Afghan reconstruction (by comparison, West Germany received about $30 billion in 2013 dollars under the Marshall Plan), there are few signs of an economic boom taking hold.
Here are a few things to consider ahead of the April vote.
1. Are NATO and the US about to lose a 'partner' when Karzai is replaced?
Hamid Karzai was America's choice to lead the country after the invasion that routed the Taliban in 2002. He had a lot to recommend him. He was an ethnic-Pashtun, the community that has formed the backbone of Taliban support and has always been highly suspicious of central government authority. He came from a prominent and respected family that has real tribal and political support – no Ahmad Chalabi he. And he spoke perfect English – not a minor consideration given how dependent Afghanistan was, then as now, on foreign aid and military support.
But in his 11 years in power he's undermined whatever slim hopes there were of building capable government institutions. He used the highly-centralized power given to him by Afghanistan's US-backed constitution to place loyalists and sycophants into prominent government posts around the country, and has presided over a rampantly corrupt state. For over four years he's made it a habit of striking out at the US – recently taking to suggest that his principal sponsor has backed suicide bombings in the country, deliberately undermined peace talks with the Taliban, and is almost entirely to blame for the country's problems.
This is all understandable when viewed from Karzai's perspective. He's an Afghan politician, seeking to secure his position. Attacking the long foreign occupation of the country may prove popular. But even when a loya jirga council of Afghan elders approved a draft security arrangement that would allow US troops to remain in the country beyond the end of this year, Karzai refused to sign. From the perspective of US and NATO interests, Karzai has been a big, erratic failure. His departure from the presidency will be no loss to them.
2. Is Karzai going to be a power behind the throne?
This is an often-expressed sentiment and it may even be true. Karzai's political allies have made vast fortunes over the past decade, and their money will surely be in play during the April presidential election and beyond. But there are others with money in Afghanistan – and there's no guarantee that people who once could be relied on to do Karzai's bidding won't simply throw themselves in with whoever emerges the victor. The Afghan presidency – not Karzai – holds enormous power to appoint provincial governors and police chiefs on down. Karzai's brother Qayum, who was a restauranteur in the US during the Afghan civil war and the time the Taliban was in power, is in the running. Though he's had a strained relationship with his brother at times, if Qayum wins the presidency Karzai's ongoing influence would seem assured. But if a former warlord like Gul Agha Sherzai wins (hint: his nickname is "the bulldozer") Karzai's influence will probably fade. (The Guardian has short pen portraits on the 7 leading candidates).
3. Will the election be fair?
Finally, an easy one. No. It will not be fair. The 2009 presidential election was marked by rampant fraud, as was the 2010 parliamentary poll that followed. The country's independent election monitoring commission hasn't been allowed to become very independent, or to do much effective monitoring. Though the US has preferred in the past to refer to Afghan elections as "messy" rather than acknowledge they are fraud fests, the reality can't be glossed over. Keep your ear tuned for US officials talking about "acceptable" levels of fraud and claims that the simple act of holding a vote is meaningful. (A US official in Kabul told me in 2010 that the "habit" of voting was an important thing to establish, never mind that the results will be tainted.)
4. What about the Taliban?
Will whoever replaces Karzai be able to reach some kind of agreement with the Taliban and other insurgent groups like that Haqqani network? Go figure. Karzai has been pushing for some kind of a peace deal - suggesting the Taliban are no threat to the rights of women in the country and should be welcomed into the government. Today, his spokesman said Karzai has been in secret talks with the Taliban and that the militants are receptive to a "peace process."
Is a deal really close? Well, peace talks and talk of peace talks have been a feature for about five years, all to no avail. From the Taliban's perspective, it might make sense to see if all foreign troops are going to depart the country or not at the end of the year; their position will probably be stronger if that happens. Whether a future president will be better or worse at working with the group is simply unknowable. Some candidates are staunchly anti-Taliban and others far more accommodating.
Then there's the role of Pakistan. Will it step up its support for the Taliban in the wake of a foreign troop drawdown, or curtail it? One hopeful sign is that whether some troops stay or not, the foreign military role in Afghanistan is going to be sharply reduced. That is going to remove a major complication for peace talks.