By M K Bhadrakumar
The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan announced in Kabul on Monday that according to preliminary results Dr Ahsraf Ghani won the June 14 run-off presidential election with 56.44% of the votes. The final tally is expected on July 22.
Ghani’s opponent Dr Abdullah Abdullah has forcefully rejected the results and his camp described it as a “coup” against the Afghan people. Abdullah has been alleging that there has been extensive gerrymandering through the use of governmental machinery and accusing President Hamid Karzai of manipulating the runoff.
A smooth transition of power in Afghanistan appears highly problematic unless some sort of deal is worked out between Ghani and Abdullah before July 22. The residual hope lies in that Afghan-style deal-making can be quite deceptive. Compromise is found often at the last minute when outsiders have already given up hope.
In this case, such an outcome cannot entirely be ruled out – although, the prospects of that happening are receding by the day.
The official stance is that these are preliminary results and “there is possibility the outcome might change after we inspect complaints [of vote rigging]”.
The US State Department takes a similar stance too – “these figures are not final or authoritative and may not predict the final outcome, which could still change based on the findings of the Afghan electoral bodies”.
These cautious words are probably meant to calm down Abdullah’s camp, but the damage has been done. In fact, if Ghani ends up as the loser when the final tally comes out in July 22, an even more ugly stalemate ensues.
In sum, the paradox is that ultimately there can only be one candidate winning in a runoff election.
Even if a deal is stuck between Ghani and Abdullah at this point – and politically speaking, that may seem the right approach – it still remains an unlawful method of transfer of power.
The bottom line is that the credibility of the Afghan presidential election has been hopelessly eroded, and that in turn could weaken the authority of the next president, whoever it is.
In the worst-case scenario, an Iraq-like ethnic divide may appear – Abdullah’s power base is among Tajiks, while Ghani’s is among Pashtuns.
If that happens, there is high risk of violence erupting between ethnic groups or even the secession of parts of the country. Abdullah draws much of his support from the Panjshir Valley that has a distinct and proud heritage of de facto autonomy, while Ghani has got hefty backing from the Pashtuns.
No doubt, at the root of it all is the Pashtun claim to be the rulers of Afghanistan, which has been a feature of that country’s history up until the Mujahideen takeover in Kabul in 1992 when the levers of power first came into the hands of the “Panjshiris” (ethnic Tajiks), who resent a return of Pashtun dominance.
The good thing is that the Afghan people are tired of war and may not feel the urge to fight a civil conflict over the political future of Abdullah or Ghani.
But, equally, the bad thing is that the running mates of Abdullah and Ghani – Balkh governor Commander Atta Mohammad Noor (who is a Tajik) and the erstwhile Uzbek commander Rashid Dostum respectively – also have an old feud to settle between them, and in the present scenario only one of them can emerge the winner in the runoff, which in turn will impact the delicate ethnic balance in Amu Darya region, and an upheaval in northern Afghanistan may ensue.
On the other hand, Ghani’s election victory would be more due to a combination of fortuitous circumstances than of genuine popularity. In some ways, therefore, he becomes a figurehead for an array of interest groups, internal and external.
Ghani secured the backing of the powerful Kandahari tribes in the southern Pashtun belt despite being a Kochi himself – and that too, from the north – thanks to the deal he worked out with Zalmay Rassoul, a former foreign minister, who was widely regarded as Karzai’s favorite.
At the same time, the erstwhile Mujahideen group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (which is strong among the southeastern Pashtun tribes and continues to be mentored by the Pakistani security establishment) also gave its backing to Ghani.
Meanwhile, Ghani also made a shrewd choice as his vice-presidential running mate – Rashid Dostum – with a view to rope in ethnic Uzbek support.
Thus, a formidable coalition is no doubt backing Ghani, but he will still remain in popular perceptions to be a “Pashtun president”, and any president other than a unifying leader acceptable to all sides cannot easily hold the country together at this juncture. Simply put, the danger of Iraq-style fragmentation is the specter that haunts Afghanistan if the Tajiks reject Ghani as their president.
It is not only that Afghanistan could split into fiefdoms, locked in another round of fratricidal strife, but the Afghan armed forces will almost certainly disintegrate in that eventuality.
On the face of it, Washington has ostentatiously kept a distance from the Afghan presidential election, careful not to avoid the mistake of the 2009 election, when Karzai alleged blatant US interference.
But behind the scenes, there is reason to believe that Washington will be quietly pleased that Ghani, whom it promoted in the 2009 election, is emerging as the winner.
The point is, unlike Abdullah who has a strong nationalistic streak in his political DNA, Ghani, an ex-World Bank official, would be a pliant figure for Washington.
Besides, Ghani also enjoys warm ties with Islamabad, and he has openly voiced interest in working out a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, which the US would also encourage as the prerequisite for stabilizing Afghanistan.
Ironically, therefore, as things stand today, the final victor in the Afghan presidential election could turn out to be the Taliban. Indeed, the Taliban would seem to be sensing the “homestretch” ahead already. They have lately stepped up their offensive in Kabul, including an attack on the city’s international airport, they have gained a “foothold” in the key southern province of Helmand and are holding parts of Kapisa.
Indeed, regional politics casts its shadow on these developments:
- The prospect of the establishment of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization military bases in Afghanistan (which Ghani is enthusiastic about),
- the deep chill in the US’ relations with Russia,
- China’s disquiet over the Hindu Kush becoming a link in Washington’s “pivot” to Asia,
- Tehran and Delhi’s tacit support for Abdullah,
- Islamabad’s preference for Ghani,
- the bearing of the Afghan situation on Chechnya and North Caucasus, Xinjiang in China and the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia …
… the interplay of these factors will almost inevitably prompt the regional powers to take a renewed interest, and even leading to their intervention, on the Afghan chessboard.
Over and above, the propensity of the US to use Islamist groups as instruments of geo-strategy – combined with the fact that a Ghani presidency is willing to accommodate the Taliban in the top echelons of power in Kabul with the tacit backing of a US-Pakistani-Saudi condominium – will unnerve many capitals in the region, which are already stunned by the Caliphate emerging out of the fog of war in Iraq and Syria.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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