With prospects for peace in Afghanistan and the region at stake, Hamid Karzai needs to end the uncertainties surrounding next year’s presidential election
On the eve of the decisive transitions — political, security and economic — in Afghanistan next year when NATO drawdown will take place, an unprecedented manthan is under way. Old feelings and emotions long suppressed, and new urges, are being expressed, even asserted, forcefully and publicly. In the process, the contradictions of Afghan society and polity are being pushed to the surface.
The old are using traditional forms: the media and by putting up hoardings in the cities. The posters, although few, of Daud Khan and the photographs of Najibullah, both strong, if brutal, leaders and symbols of Pashtun authority, which have made an appearance in Kabul, indicate as much a waning of the fear of Mujahideen leaders as of a yearning, among some, for effective, even authoritarian, leadership. The youth are turning to the social media to articulate their political views, largely indicative of a desire for democracy and development.
For the future of Afghanistan, this manthan needs to lead to consensus on an overarching national theme for Afghan society and polity. But that is nowhere discernible. President Karzai, who has been the central figure in Afghan national life for over a decade, has failed to provide the vision and leadership essential for the evolution of such consensus.
A paradigm shift is taking place in large sections of the Afghan political elite as well as the main NATO countries regarding management of the transitions. Until now it was felt that the principal challenge in 2014 after the drawdown of foreign forces would come from Taliban insurgency. The capacity of the Afghan security forces to cope with an invigorated Taliban was suspect. It was therefore considered essential to draw the Taliban into a reconciliation process so that the insurgency could be contained post NATO troop drawdown. This approach is now giving way to a new thinking which emphasises that the key to success will lie in a fair and credible presidential election, which is scheduled to be held in April 2014. The reconciliation process, led by the High Peace Council under Salahuddin Rabbani, is not being abandoned but it is no longer considered crucial to future stability.
The premise of the new approach is that if the Afghan political process coheres it will give confidence to the people in the future of the country, and an Afghan government with a credibly elected President, with the people behind it will be able to successfully handle the insurgency and keep the economy going. Such a government will critically need the international community’s continuing financial support and the presence of around 10,000 U.S. troops which will be available if the Presidential elections are fair.
At the heart of present thinking lies the role of President Karzai in organising an orderly election next year for a smooth handover of power. The Afghan Constitution does not permit Mr. Karzai to contest the next election. He has said publicly he will adhere to the Constitution but everyone this writer met in Kabul earlier this month said he had taken no practical steps to begin the election process. Some therefore suspect that he is still seeking a way to continue beyond the constitutionally mandated period. However, most believe that he is focussed on finding a person who can not only win the election but will also ensure his security and assure him of immunity and a role in a future set-up.
Many names including that of his brother Qayyum Karzai are doing the rounds but Mr. Karzai has not been able to make up his mind. Hence, the atmosphere is full of uncertainties and all eyes are on President Karzai. For over a decade he masterfully outmanoeuvred all Afghan political actors but failed to emerge as the leader of the Pashtuns, leave alone the country. At the same time, he ensured that no one else did. Consequently, he has no natural successor. Perhaps he did not form a party so that no one could emerge as a natural successor.
Through all this uncertainty, the political class is preparing for elections. It is fractured on ethnic lines and there are contending groups within each ethnic community. The Tajiks are divided into two broad fronts: one led by the former Vice-President, Ahmad Zia Massoud, and the other by the former Foreign Minister, Dr. Abdullah, and the former Speaker, Qanooni. Among the Hazaras, the old Mujahideen leader Mohaqiq remains the main figure, while the enduring Uzbek leader Dostum continues his hold over his people. Many Pashtun political figures, both within Afghanistan and in the diaspora, fancy their chances. In typical Afghan fashion everyone is talking to everyone else but it is unlikely that the real coalitions and their candidates will emerge till autumn.
The most problematic issue that confronts Afghanistan is its readiness for a non-Pashtun President. Almost all Pashtuns firmly believe that only a Pashtun can lead the country. But one Tajik leader said that the Pashtun have to be prepared to accept that a fair election might bring up a non-Pashtun.
In recent weeks, Mr. Karzai is raising the temperature with Pakistan especially over charges of the Pakistani Army violating the Durand Line. Skirmishes have taken place between the two countries leading to casualties on both sides. Pakistani diplomats have been summoned to the Foreign Office. Mr. Karzai has asserted that Afghanistan will never accept the Durand Line as the international border, a theme that resonates with all Afghans. If this is an attempt to refurbish his image, it comes too late even though tough action against Pakistan is popular. Mr. Karzai knows that Afghanistan cannot play the anti-Pakistan card beyond a point. More significant is the Pakistani conviction, not without reason, that the present approach of seeking to bypass the Taliban, which effectively means putting Pakistani interests aside, will not work. Taliban influence in many provinces in southern and eastern Afghanistan is strong and through them Pakistan can calibrate levels of violence especially after the drawdown of NATO forces. Significantly, Pakistan is establishing serious contacts with non-Pashtun groups too.
With Mr. Karzai keeping both the country and the international community guessing, the Afghan elite has been sending funds out of Afghanistan. Property prices in major Afghan cities have fallen by up to 50 per cent. The afghani has slipped by about 15 per cent against the U.S. dollar in recent weeks. Many Afghans feel that the situation of the 1990s will not come to pass. But those with means have transferred assets abroad, including Pakistan, by way of an insurance against any eventuality. Property prices have moved up in Peshawar.
The period of transitions will bring difficulties in the execution of India’s Afghan policies. A deteriorating security situation will impede the completion of major projects which are experiencing delays as it is. As of now, however, India is developing new projects. An agricultural university is planned to be established in Kandahar. Dr. M.S. Swaminathan visited Kabul last week to discuss its contours with Mr. Karzai and his ministers. The university project must be vigorously pursued despite the security challenges in Kandahar. The Indian skills development programme is particularly important for Afghanistan.
Major Indian companies are interested in Afghanistan but are worried about the future of the country. The government must work with Indian industry and Kabul to address their security concerns in innovative ways. A push at the Afghan resources sector needs to gather momentum even now. Action on the ground is especially required in respect of the large Hajikak iron project. We also need to talk to all regional countries about developing Afghanistan’s transport sector including access to the sea so that it would be possible to send Afghan natural resources to international markets.
As part of India’s support, the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement should be implemented in all areas, including defence and security, without refracting it through the prism of our relations with any other country.
At this critical stage, India also needs to reach out to all Afghan political actors, including old friends, and assure them that it will follow its tradition of not intervening in their politics and will support the evolution of their constitutional process.
Afghanistan is on the cusp of change and the skies are cloudy. Mr. Karzai needs to act decisively as a statesman and not as a traditional Popalzai chieftain. Perhaps, he should recall the political science courses he took in Shimla on the importance of upholding the constitution and look beyond a policy of divide and rule.
(Vivek Katju is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar.)