Afghan leadership transition & Pakistan

Afghan ElectionBy S. M. Hali

Kabul has finally had a peaceful democratic transition of leadership, the first in four decades and in the bargain attained two: a president and a first ever chief executive to share powers. More than seven million of an estimated eligible twelve million Afghan voters (34% of them women), braved inclement weather, Taliban threats and terror attacks cast their vote on April 5th, 2014 amidst tight security. The process had to be repeated on June 14 for a second round run-off, since no candidate secured more than the mandatory 50% of the vote. Despite sporadic assaults by miscreants including one on June 6 in which, candidate Abdullah Abdullah narrowly survived an assassination attempt, the second round took place. It raised the specter of further uncertainty, since Abdullah Abdullah, who fared marginally better than his rival in the first round, was declared the loser to Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and challenged the results vociferously.

Months of bickering and accusations of polls rigging further marred the electoral process till US Secretary of State John Kerry jumped into the fray announcing on July 12 that all ballots would be audited under UN supervision. The US has mercifully not played favourites and aided the transition neutrally.

The UN commenced monitoring and recount of the second-round ballots on August 29. In the backdrop of whispers of election fraud on both sides, on September 21, Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner and the bitter wrangling was put to rest with both candidates announcing a unity government of power sharing with Ghani assuming the mantle of President and Abdullah Abdullah the newly created post of Chief Executive, which following a constitutional amendment may be turned into the position of Prime Minister. It was the end of a bitter squabbling of power struggle, which has the potential of morphing into a bloodier carnage than the one which followed the 1989 Soviet retreat and departure of US-led allies who created the Afghan resistance to rout the Red Army.

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John Kerry’s deft shuttle diplomacy, reminiscent of the “Kissinger era”, cajoling, counseling and even threatening the candidates of shutting off the spigot of US financial support ultimately bore fruit. The US is a major stakeholder for peace in Afghanistan with the drawdown of international forces targeted to conclude by yearend and the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) to be signed by the new Afghan hpw incumbent, a prerequisite adding urgency to the conclusion of the electoral process. The BSA will provide the legal framework for the US to continue to train, advise and assist Afghan national security forces in an endeavour to insulate Afghanistan from becoming a refuge for terrorists.

Post Karzai Afghanistan faces enormous challenges. The absence of sound state institutions, lack of reforms to harness the unbridled powers of the warlords, massive corruption and acute nepotism has badly shattered the capacity for any government to rule the highly fragmented Afghan society, let alone a coalition of opposing factions. The Afghan National Army too is far from ready to meet the challenges of terror attacks and keeping the Taliban at bay, especially from the key Southern province of Helmand, notorious for drug cultivation. The economy is in doldrums and according to US media sources; the Afghan government is on the verge of bankruptcy, necessitating an emergency $537 million bailout just to pay its government employees. All social service projects started by allied countries may come to a standstill without further funding from pledged donors.

Karzai found an easy scapegoat to divert attention from his government’s poor governance and far-reaching failures, blaming Pakistan Army and ISI for sponsoring terror attacks in his country and urging the US to chastise Pakistan, while blatantly providing safe refuge to anti-Pakistan elements like the TTP and Baloch insurgents’ top leadership. The trust-deficit is unfortunate because Pakistan hosted 3-5 million Afghan refugees for over three decades; has backed “Afghan led” reconciliation process by facilitating opening of Doha office; releasing Taliban prisoners on Afghan Government’s request; conducted wide range military operations to eradicate terrorist safe havens from its soil and has avoided patronizing any political candidate in Afghan government. Despite these positive endeavors, Afghan Government’s response has remained lukewarm and the spate of anti Pakistan narrative continues unabated.

During the 2014 Afghan Presidential election campaign TV debates, all three contenders, including Zalmai Rassoul also accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban, claiming that Afghan sovereignty had to be maintained, and that the Afghan government had to prevent Pakistan from destabilizing Afghanistan through proxies.

This bleak milieu demands tightrope walking for Pakistan. It will have to not only welcome the new Afghan leadership, their choice of necessity, but hope that the fragile peace amongst the warring warlords does not break out into internecine warfare. Pakistan must continue its support for the Afghans in transit trade and all aspects of good neighbourliness.