Afghanistan: Time for new blood

New Afghan government must dispense with strongmen and cronies to give new generation a chance.

With the alliances made so far, both candidates are likely to have a minimum of four to five "warlords" in their leadership teams, writes Torfeh [EPA]

The Afghan elections were hailed as a major victory for a country gripped by war and terror for over 35 years. Almost seven million voters – 36 percent of them women – came out to say a resounding “no” to the terror of the Taliban, and a clear “yes” to the ballot box. Yet the inconclusive results raise the danger of the return of several so-called “warlords” to the future government of Afghanistan.

Take Abdullah Abdullah’s victory with 45 percent of the votes. This was impressive especially for the only Tajik-Pashtun among eight Pashtun candidates. Even more positive was the recent alliance he made with the third runner up, Zalmai Rassoul, who received 11.5 percent of the votes. However, Abdullah’s acceptance of an offer of alliance with Gul Agha Sherzai, the former governor of Nangrahar and Kandahar (and an alleged former “warlord”), was a step in the wrong direction.

Likewise, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai who had almost 32 percent in the first round, and is credited as a former finance minister who fought corruption, was criticised in international circles for choosing General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who faces allegations of rights abuses, as his first vice president.

There is a younger generation of political activists, cutting across the ethnic and gender lines, that is keen to play a direct role in the affairs of Afghanistan. The advantage of this generation is that although it has experienced the pain of civil war years, it has not been directly involved.

The second round planned for mid-June gives both Abdullah and Ghani an equal chance to win. Abdullah has the numbers card with 13 percent more votes, and Ghani has the ethnic card with the likelihood of more Pashtuns voting for him this time round.

The second round also gives them an equal chance to move the political narrative forward by making smarter alliances. They could select and deselect their alliances in such a way as to reverse the endemic trend of strongmen in government.

This time, they could form alliances with the new generation of political activists, new political parties, prominent civil society figures and social groups and women of stature who have played a major role in the success of the elections. These are likely to bring the two candidates new votes and more credibility and thus a better response from donor countries.

Strongmen and cronies

As things stand, the dangers are there. With the alliances so far made and reportedly planned for the second round, both candidates are likely to have a minimum of four to five “warlords” in their leadership teams. Some have already been designated the post of vice president and others joining will no doubt demand nothing less than prominent posts. They would bring with them their entourages and cronies.

This goes against the wishes of the people of Afghanistan, especially civil society and women, who have been outspoken about war crimes.

“The past record of these warlords is indicative of their ability to ruin everything,” said Soraya Parlika, a veteran woman activist. She called on the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission to “throw them out of the final ballot”.

An extensive survey by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) addressing issues of justice and accountability also made clear that majority of people in Afghanistan want past crimes to be confronted.

Yet the question of transitional justice was never tackled in the 13 years of President Hamid Karzai’s rule. Karzai, fearful of consequences, always had several “warlords” in key positions. In 2012, AIHRC was barred from publishing its findings in a report entitled “Conflict Mapping in Afghanistan Since 1978”. And when the international rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the government to seek the repeal of the recent amnesty and election laws that prevent the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) from disqualifying presidential candidates and running mates responsible for past atrocities, nothing was done.

Often the excuse for inaction is that everyone has somehow been involved in war crimes of the past three decades. Perhaps many have been, but there are also dozens and dozens of highly qualified Afghan men and women who have no such backgrounds.

There is a younger generation of political activists, cutting across the ethnic and gender lines, that is keen to play a direct role in the affairs of Afghanistan. The advantage of this generation is that although it has experienced the pain of the civil war years, it has not been directly involved. Their attitude to politics and society is diametrically opposed to that of so-called warlords. They are determined to change the tired face of Afghan politics often associated with corruption and patriarchal leadership.

Younger generation

Over the past decade, they have formed political parties, such as Afghanistan “1400, Our Country Our Responsibility“, and joined civil society organisations such as Afghanistan Civil Society Forum, or women’s networks, or law associations, and election watchdogs, some were elected as parliamentarians, others became journalists and human rights experts, all contributing immensely to the success of the April 5 elections.

Over the past two years, they exerted daily pressure on the authorities, and on the international community to ensure transparency, integrity and inclusiveness of the elections. They encouraged public participation and public awareness, warning the authorities that they are watching every move they make. They have a fresh outlook on where Afghanistan should be headed. Many are working as successful entrepreneurs and managers in private firms or are recruited by international organisations for their expertise and professionalism.

Yet this new dynamic generation of qualified men and women has been unable to reach official posts because the strongmen and their cronies have been occupying them.    

The second round of elections is a historical opportunity for the next president of Afghanistan to rise up to the challenge of making alliances with this new generation of activists and, at the same time, reducing the number of “warlords” in the cabinet. The presence of more strongmen in government would mean the continuation of most of Afghanistan’s acute problems including disregard for the rule of law, increased corruption, perpetuation of the narco-economy and the impossibility of keeping a check on good governance. 

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and is currently a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.