The Afghan challenge
By Imtiaz Gul
The Express Tribune, April 30, 2014
On April 26, the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the preliminary results of the April 5 presidential elections, with Dr Abdullah Abdullah in the lead with 44.9 per cent of the votes, followed by Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai who obtained 31.5 per cent and Dr Zalmai Rassoul with 11.5 per cent. To secure an outright victory, a candidate must win more than 50 per cent of all valid ballots. As of now, it looks nearly improbable for Abdullah Abdullah to get to the 50 per cent mark and a run-off looks imminent, which is likely to take place on May 28.
Dr Abdullah told the media in Kabul on April 28 that he was not fearful of second round elections, and believed that “if the invalid votes were separated from valid ballots, there will be no need for a second round of elections.”
Back in 2009, following a diplomatic intervention by John Kerry, Abdullah had quit the race after finishing second to incumbent President Hamid Karzai in the first round of the presidential election.
Regardless of whether a run-off takes place and which of the two candidates emerges victorious, a few trends are quite instructive both for Pakistan and the United States.
Firstly, nearly seven million Afghans out of some 12 million eligible voters turned up to vote, defying the Taliban threats of violence. It marked the country’s fifth election as a whole since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. This marks a major stride in Afghanistan’s transition from war to civility.
Secondly, the big turnout also amounted to the rejection of President Karzai’s legacy (pronounced through poor showing of his favourite candidate Zalmay Rassoul).
Third, a mere seven per cent votes for Professor Sayyaf and less than three per cent for Qutbuddin Hilal — both former mujahideen leaders — also underscored the rejection of symbols of obscurantist religious ideology, warlordism and violence.
Fourth, hundreds of thousands of youth as well as female voters, particularly in the urban centres, such as Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Herat, also got the opportunity to speak through the ballot. One tends to assume that most of the youth and female voters in these urban power centres possibly went either in favour of Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani because the proliferation of print and electronic media has helped highlight the ills of the past decade.
Fifth, a run-off will invariably delay the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement that President Karzai has refused to sign thus far. Yet, during his recent visit to Pakistan, US special envoy James Dobbins sounded quite optimistic on the BSA (because all presidential candidates had supported signing it).
Dobbins ruled out the ‘zero option’, saying “it is not an option for us… (but) if they do not want us we would not stay; we are certainly not going to force ourselves.” He did, however, make some very important points with regard to Pakistan’s Afghanistan challenge, suggesting that Afghanistan should be prepared to sit down and work with Pakistan to arrange a more orderly and regulated regime along (the Durand Line).
The special envoy also reminded Pakistan of its commitment to eliminate “not just the violent extremists who attack Pakistan, but the violent extremists who operate from Pakistani territory and attack neighbouring societies.”
Cumulatively, the Afghan elections offer a window of opportunity for Pakistan. It needs to realise that Narendra Modi’s likely rise to prime ministership in New Delhi and the Afghans’ overwhelming rejection of the forces of the status quo.
Expediency dictates that Pakistan also break off ties with militant groups — whom most Afghans consider as the root cause of their miseries. By doing so and re-tailoring its Afghan and India policy, Pakistan will most probably draw unqualified support from the United States and other regional players as well. This will certainly evoke positive responses from Kabul and New Delhi. A paranoid and the frozen-in-history approach will only result in more isolation for the country.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India