Afghanistan’s Victory for Democracy and Loss for Peace
No matter the outcome, this weekend’s presidential election will likely set back the peace process with the Taliban.
On Saturday, Afghanistan will hold its fourth presidential elections since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. The vote, which pits incumbent President Ashraf Ghani against Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and former intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil, is a milestone in the country’s transition to democracy. And the international community is largely supportive of Afghanistan’s decision to hold elections, after several postponements. Roland Kobia, the European Union’s special envoy to Afghanistan, recently said that elections “become more necessary by the hour” after the recent collapse of U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations. Although the United States has expressed concerns about political violence during the vote, it has not questioned the timing of the elections.
But despite such widespread support for the upcoming vote, Ghani’s decision to hold elections at this uncertain juncture in the conflict resolution process could seriously undermine long-term prospects for peace. A divisive election campaign has exacerbated polarization among supporters of Afghanistan’s legitimate government, and the Taliban’s efforts to subvert the Afghan election process have intensified their hostilities with Kabul.
Although Ghani’s popularity has declined sharply since he was elected as Afghanistan’s president in 2014, the advantages of incumbency and anticipated low voter turnout give him a decisive edge over his rivals at the ballot box. This means that Ghani is almost certain to win, which means he’ll be the Afghan government’s official representative in diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban, if the intra-Afghan dialogue that is necessary for peace comes to fruition. Given this political reality, the political cleavages exposed during the election campaign are problematic, as they could prevent supporters of Afghanistan’s legitimate government from uniting around Ghani in future negotiations.
For example, over the past several months, Ghani’s opponents have leveled serious corruption allegations against him. In May, Gen. Habibullah Ahmadzai, a former presidential advisor, disclosed alleged egregious mismanagement within Ghani’s government, including the exchange of sexual favors for government posts. More recently, a leaked document that reveals that Ghani pays one of his closest economic advisors $41,250 per month (GDP per capita in Afghanistan is just $550) has circulated widely on Afghan social media. The U.S. Department of State’s decision to slash $160 million in economic aid to Afghanistan one week before the election compounded public uncertainty and has allowed Abdullah’s supporters to assert that Ghani lacks the moral authority to continue as president.
The Ghani administration has forcefully retaliated. In recent days, a fake story purporting to illustrate how Abdullah received $39 million from Pakistan has circulated on pro-Ghani social media accounts. It received official backing from Shah Hussain Mortazavi, a spokesperson for Ghani. Ghani has also categorically ruled out presiding over a coalition government, a decision that could cause Afghanistan’s Uzbek and Hazara populations, which have largely sided with Abdullah, to be consigned to the fringes of upcoming peace negotiations.
As prominent Afghan political figures, such as Ahmad Wali Massoud, the brother of Northern Alliance founder Ahmad Shah Massoud, have previously called for protests against Ghani, there is a rising risk of marginalized factions instigating political unrest. That danger will grow exponentially if there is tangible evidence of ballot-box stuffing and other forms of electoral fraud, which tarnished the results of Afghanistan’s two preceding elections in 2009 and 2014. Influential extragovernmental figures, such as Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is also standing for office in the upcoming elections, and former President Hamid Karzai, have also argued that the aftershocks of the fractious election campaign could worsen political violence in Afghanistan and encourage the Taliban to intensify their military offensives on government-held territories.
In addition to the unwelcome distraction caused by intragovernmental rivalries, the Taliban’s bellicose conduct throughout the campaign further dims prospects for a breakthrough in the peace process. The Taliban have repeatedly described the upcoming Afghan elections as a “sham vote” that empowers what it believes to be a U.S. puppet government in Kabul. In order to deter popular participation in the Afghan elections, the Taliban launched a suicide attack at a campaign rally in Parwan, north of Kabul, which resulted in the deaths of at least 26 civilians. Even though Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Khoshal Sadat has promised to deploy 70,000 police officers to voting booths, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has pledged to help Afghanistan during the vote, the Taliban’s threats to target polling stations could still result in the closure of some of these sites on election day.
The Taliban’s delegitimization of the Afghan electoral process through violence will likely prevent the swift resumption of U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations, especially since U.S. President Donald Trump has castigated the Taliban for creating “false leverage” through acts of terrorism. Ghani’s decision to select former Interior Minister Amrullah Saleh as his vice presidential running mate also bodes ill for future dialogue with the Taliban. In recent weeks, Saleh has described the Taliban as “terrorist thugs” and a “stinking ideology that should die.” The depth of the animosity between Saleh and the Taliban is illustrated by the Taliban-orchestrated attack on Saleh’s office on July 28, which resulted in at least 30 deaths. Saleh’s presence could encourage Kabul to retaliate militarily against Taliban provocations, instead of offering cease-fires as confidence-building measures, which has been Ghani’s standard response.
With peace talks between the Taliban and the United States—and between the Taliban and the Afghan government—seemingly off the table, the Taliban will likely try to curry support from non-Western powers for its efforts to expel U.S. forces from Afghanistan by all means necessary. The warm welcome received by Taliban delegations in China, Iran, and Russia since Trump announced that U.S.-Taliban peace talks were “dead” on Sept. 9 suggests that this strategy is already underway. Eventually, the Taliban’s venue-shopping could lead to revival of alternative forums, such the Moscow-format negotiations, which bolster the status of the militants and the talks’ host countries without meaningfully addressing the central conflict between Kabul and the Taliban.
Although Afghanistan’s upcoming elections provide a glimmer of hope for a democratic future, polarization among supporters of Afghanistan’s legitimate government and Taliban-orchestrated attacks on civilians could deal a major blow to the country’s already receding hopes for peace. If Ghani’s probable victory is not recognized by his chief rivals, Afghanistan could enter into an even more acute tailspin of political violence. If this dismal scenario unfolds, the winners of the elections will be the Taliban and external powers, which will capitalize on instability in Afghanistan to heighten their own status. The ultimate losers will be the Afghan people, still struggling to escape four decades of incessant war.
Samuel Ramani is a nonresident fellow at the Gulf International Forum and a doctoral candidate in Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. Twitter: @samramani2