Analysis of Forthcoming Presidential Election in Afghanistan

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan Issues

Although almost two years have remained before the next presidential election in Afghanistan, campaigns aimed at gaining the power have already started at an extraordinary level. It seems that the challenge of power struggle in Afghanistan stems from different realities and various expectations of active political currents which have their roots in specific ethnic and religious affiliations. In a general overview, the aforesaid challenges can be analyzed at two levels:

1. The challenge between the ruling power structure and its armed opposition, especially the Taliban; and

2. The challenge among various political factions with ethnic and religious roots inside the government.

The situation of power challenge between the ruling structure, on the one side, and the Taliban and other armed opposition groups, on the other side, is somehow clear. The armed opposition comes from Pashtun ethnic roots with their ultimate goal being to form monopoly of power in both ethnic and ideological terms within framework of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. In achieving this goal, the armed opposition groups have been facing serious opposition from Uzbek, Hazara, and Tajik ethnic groups. Most of them are members of the national front formed by Ahmad Zia Massoud, or the National Coalition of Afghanistan which was previously known as the Coalition for Change and Hope and is led by the former minister of foreign affairs, Abdullah Abdullah, and Yunus Qanooni. Therefore, there are two dominant groups one of which, namely the Taliban, is trying to gain power through military means and armed conflict while the other one, namely the National Coalition of Afghanistan, gives priority to democratic mechanisms and active participation of people in the election of the president and the country’s national parliament. There is also a third faction which is the ruling liberal faction. It is an amalgam of various ethnicities as well as political groupings which has tried to strengthen its power base following the military intervention in Afghanistan by the United States and NATO which led to ouster of the Taliban from power. Of course, due to certain reasons, this current has failed after so many years to pass itself as a trans-ethnic and trans-religious current in order to guarantee its survival in future Afghanistan.

The third and liberal political current which is ruling Afghanistan has largely tied its fate to that of the foreign military presence in the country. This is the main factor which has made it more vulnerable over years, rendering it unable to gain secure social basis among any ethnic or religious group in the war-torn country. The incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai stands for this current. The president has already served two terms in office and when the second term is over, according to the country’s constitution, he will not be able to run for a third term. Therefore, his supporters are advocating a political formula which has been already tested in Russia and is known as Putin-Medvedev formula. Some analysts have noted that this is why one of his brothers has renounced his US citizenship. They say Karzai’s willingness to make one of his brothers, Abdul Qayum or Mahmood, run for president should be interpreted along the same lines. They have even thought of a solution for the emergency state which may face the country after a large part of the US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan. Some insiders have noted that in that case, the Afghan government will postpone presidential election one of whose clear meanings is the extension of Hamid Karzai’s term in office as the president.

The issue, however, is not as simple as it may seem on the surface. A meeting was recently held attended by members of the national coalition in Mazar-e-Sharif in which non-Pashtun groups agreed to do their best and lend their support to a single candidate who would come from non-Pashtun ethnic groups in the forthcoming presidential polls in Afghanistan. This clearly depicts what a difficult situation Hamid Karzai and his liberal supporters are faced with. When the opposition of the Taliban and other armed groups to the rule of a liberal government in Kabul is added to these realities, there would remain insignificant hope that the Russian formula or extension of Karzai’s presidential term would be at all possible. However, the problem with power challenge in Afghanistan does not end here. The Islamic Party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is also a claimant to power and is bent on playing a role in power games in Kabul either through military pressure or non-forceful political participation. These conditions and realities have added to ambiguities surrounding future political outlook of Afghanistan and this is why presidential election campaigns have already started in the country. In the meantime, the future standing of liberal political forces in Afghanistan has become vaguer. One the one side, the fact that Karzai called the Taliban his brothers, has done nothing to even slightly reduce their opposition to his government. On the other hand, some political forces which supported him in the past have now forsaken him. As a result, the latest meeting of the National Coalition of Afghanistan was attended by Mohammad Mohaqiq and General Abdul Rashid Dostum, of Hazara and Uzbek ethnic backgrounds, who formerly supported Karzai and were considered among his major allies. The meeting was also attended by Atta Muhammad Nur, the governor of Balkh, and the host of the meeting. The main goal of the participants was to promote Atta Muhammad Nur as their presidential candidate instead of Karzai.

In this way, the governor of Balkh, who loses no opportunity to openly declare his opposition to Hamid Karzai, has been trying to promote himself as a major candidate and possible substitute to Hamid Karzai. In doing this, he is joined by other figures that have a claim to presidency, including Abdullah Abdullah. Abdullah still believes that he was the real winner of the past presidential polls and still sticks to his claim about rampant vote rigging in that election. In practice, however, the reality is that the meeting in Mazar-e-Sharif focused on a goal which if achieved, would lead to a historical development after about 300 years that Pashtuns have been swaying power in the country. The participants in Mazar-e-Sharif meeting have apparently agreed that the presidency should be handed over to what they called “oppressed” ethnic groups. It seems that Atta Muhammad Nur has been introduced as a personality who is able to make that historical development take place by taking advantage of his social base as a Tajik as well as his personal position as a wealthy governor and a former commander of Jihadist forces, which of course helped him to amass his current wealth. It is just for this reason that the doors have been left open for negotiations with other Jihadist commanders regardless of their ethnic origins and without giving priority to Pashtun ethnic groups. In this way, they are trying to form a powerful and influential front amid the ongoing power challenge between armed and unarmed rival groups.

It is apparently under these conditions that the government of Hamid Karzai has pinned its hope on the Taliban. By doing so, Karzai is taking the chance that they may accept national reconciliation with the government in order to share the power in Kabul and protect the 300-year dominance of the Pashtun ethnic group over non-Pashtun ethnicities. The problem, however, is that the differences and conflicts between the Taliban and other ethnic groups as well as former military commanders are too profound to allow for any form of reconciliation. Under these circumstances, if such a possible reconciliation does not enjoy powerful domestic, regional and even international support, it would not only fail to restore peace and stability to Afghanistan, but also entail the high risk of ethnic rifts which may go as deep as territorial disintegration of the war-wracked country.

Key Words: Presidential Election, Afghanistan, Power Struggle, Taliban, Opposition Groups, US, NATO, Putin-Medvedev Formula, Karzai, Mollazehi 

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