Afghanistan: Beyond ethnic politics and ‘jihad dividends’

After a highly personality-driven electoral process, contested results have put Afghanistan’s stability at risk.

The second round of the presidential election has polarised Afghan society, writes Moradian [EPA]

Afghanistan appears to be joining the group of countries that produce contested elections. Unlike the universally commended first round of the presidential election in which Afghan voters and security forces bled for democracy, the second round has resulted in the polarisation of Afghan society. A joint, skilful, patient and firm intervention from the international community could prove essential in salvaging the country’s nascent democracy and fragile stability.

One of the two presidential contenders, Abdullah Abdullah, is convinced that President Hamid Karzai and the electoral institution are colluding to deny him the presidency for a second time – just as he claimed in the wake of the presidential election in 2009. Abdullah’s opponent, Ashraf Ghani, appears to believe it is a matter of time before he succeeds the outgoing president.

Ghani is confident that he has achieved the necessary numbers for the presidency – that’s based on the Independent Election Commission’s (IEC) preliminary count. Ghani may also be banking on the West’s desperation for signing their security agreements with Kabul before the NATO Summit.

The leak of alleged audio recordings of Ghani’s camp, electoral officials and government officials have reinforced Abdullah’s conviction of an “industrial scale fraud” in Ghani’s favour. Abdullah’s powerful supporters – including presumably the former chief of Afghan intelligence, Amrullah Saleh and Balkh Governor Ustad Atta – have threatened to establish a “parallel government” should the Afghan electoral bodies and government unilaterally follow the electoral calendar.

This course of action, of course, is likely to result in civil war and partition. Fortunately, there are few members on either team who would want to take the country in that direction.

Worst case scenario

However, their miscalculation of their own strengths – and their rival’s weaknesses – may inadvertently create the conditions necessary for the worst case scenario. There is a growing recognition of the need for creative solutions to protect Afghanistan’s political stability, national unity, and democratic governance.

The process of democratisation is primarily political. Technical expertise and legal frameworks such as the electoral calendar can facilitate a viable political process. Based on this principle, we can only follow the electoral calendar within the context of an inclusive and legitimate political process. Another principle is accountability. Unfortunately, unchecked impunity enabled massive fraud in the 2009 presidential election. The lack of accountability produced a weak president and likewise undermined the authority of the Afghan electoral institution.

In a multi-ethnic polity such as Afghanistan, the electoral majority should be counted, rather than rely on notions of ‘ethnic supremacy’ or even a “jihad dividend” – a term that alludes to the claim by some former mujahideen groups that they are entitled to positions of power due to their role in the ‘jihad’ against the Soviets.

At this stage, fair and impartial authorities must investigate all allegations of election fraud with transparent processes if we are to avoid facing similar consequences.

Another principle is constitutionality. Afghanistan’s fragile stability and nascent democracy are mainly sustained by an enlightened constitutional order, and all electoral processes must be executed within a constitutional framework. Expediency, appeasement, and a narrow vision often solve acute problems while deepening chronic ones, and therefore must be avoided.

Another guiding principle is the democratic principle. Democratic politics are based on a democratic principle rather than hereditary entitlement. In a multi-ethnic polity such as Afghanistan, the electoral majority should be counted, rather than rely on notions of ethnic supremacy or even a jihad dividend – a term that alludes to the claim by some former mujahideen groups that they are entitled to positions of power due to their role in the “jihad” against the Soviets.

The primacy of non-violent discourse and the rejection of fear mongering is another principle. Neither the threat of partition, nor parallel government, and the threat of the Taliban’s return and a sense of ethnic entitlement can be inserted as an electoral mandate.

The other principle is the compatibility of process and result, where both should be constitutional, legitimate, inclusive, and credible. International mediation is an essential element in the process. Any such mediation should be comprised of three mutually reinforcing entities: diplomatic interventions by concerned governments, the United Nations, and a group of respected elder statesmen (and women).

The international community, particularly the US, has a legitimate right and responsibility to be concerned about the implication of a constitutional breakdown in Afghanistan, which would have wider regional and global consequences. The UN’s intervention is necessary but not sufficient. Unfortunately, the UN’s previous record in Afghanistan, its compromised relations with big powers and its bureaucratic and careerist culture have undermined the authority, competency, and credibility of the UN.

A group of respected elder statesmen can complement and support diplomatic and UN interventions. Such persons should be known as authoritative, knowledgeable, impartial and empathetic. Fortunately, there are many individuals among Afghanistan’s international partners that meet such criteria. These including, to name a few, Pakistani Senator Mahmoud Khan Achekzai, former US ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann, former NATO envoy to Kabul Hikmet Cetin, former Japanese envoy to Afghanistan Sadako Ogata, former Indian National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and former UN envoy to Afghanistan Tom Koenigs.

Peaceful power transfer

A key question is over the role Karzai plays in the process. In his public statements, he has assured the Afghan people and the international community of his unwavering commitment to transfer power peacefully and democratically. However, consistent with his patterns of behaviour, he was torn apart by his Machiavellian, tribal and pseudo-democratic impulses. Karzai has pursued conflicting objectives: remaining an indispensable player in any Afghanistan-related process and a saviour of any potential gridlock, followed by his skilfully disguised ethnic bias and maintaining respectability in the international community.

As a political gambler and a master tactician, Karzai is likely to continue playing his two trademark strategies with Afghans and the international community. With Afghans, his strategy is based on bribe, divide, and manipulate, whereas with the international community he has pursued a strategy that can best be described as threaten, confuse, and manipulate. The international community and the Afghan people must be united in confronting Karzai’s highly dangerous game and hold him accountable for his constitutional responsibility and personal promises.

Afghanistan’s highly centralised governance structure has made the presidential election a personality-driven winner-takes-all process. Furthermore, it is based on an implicitly ethnic-based distribution of power, categorising Afghan ethnic groups into larger and lesser groups. In the absence of a verifiable nationwide census, ethnic majority and minority groups remain contested and polarising. As part of a wider and deeper reform, Afghanistan’s highly centralised and ethnic-based politics should become more diffused, democratic, civic, institutional, and transparent.

Fortunately, abundant political will remains to find constitutionally inclusive solutions to Afghanistan’s electoral gridlock, provided all stakeholders mobilise and synergise their efforts. If this becomes a reality, Afghanistan’s arduous journey towards democratisation will become irreversible and an inspiration to the region’s democratic constituencies. If not, an unresolved electoral dispute will push the country and the surrounding region into a black hole of insecurity.    

Davood Moradian is the director-general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and former chief of programmes in President Hamid Karzai’s office and chief policy adviser to Afghanistan’s ministry of foreign affairs.