WHEN I was in Kabul in the last week of November the main news was that President Hamid Karzai and his senior aides and political allies had a long meeting with the 22 parties of the loyal opposition to, rather grandiloquently, discuss the next elections.
Also discussed were the demands made earlier by the opposition, through the Charter for Democracy, for changes in the political structure.
A novel feature of this meeting was that five parties with representation in Karzai’s cabinet also joined the opposition in their support for the proposals contained in the charter.
The charter had been adopted by the parties in September and called for, among other things, elections to be held on time, a census to be completed and new national ID cards to be issued. It called for voter registration and lists to be compiled, for assigning national and international monitors to oversee the elections. This charter was reinforced by a ‘Declaration of Principles for Electoral Reform’ on Oct 17 signed by 34 parties and with more or less the same requirements.
On Nov 28 when Karzai met the opposition, April 5, 2014 had been announced as the date for presidential polls. Karzai’s opponents appeared reasonably confident that the president was serious about adhering to this date but there were also serious apprehensions that while Karzai had given up any idea of amending the constitution to permit himself a third term he was intent on ensuring that only his anointed successor should win the election.
These apprehensions arose from the series of new appointments of governors, all of whom were identified as Karzai loyalists with little independent political standing. There were also reports that a major cabinet reshuffle was being contemplated that would ensure the retention of all levers of administrative power in the hands of Karzai loyalists who would do whatever was needed to manipulate the elections to achieve the results the president wanted.
According to reports I heard in Kabul about the meeting, it seemed the opposition felt that they had been able to impress upon the president that only acceptance of their demands would ensure peaceful elections and a smooth transfer of power. They negated the president’s plea that there was not enough time and money available to prepare new voter registration rolls and seemed confident that this would go ahead even while the issuance of new ID cards could be put off.
From what I heard it seemed that the opposition had not insisted on the inclusion of foreign nationals on the Election Complaints Commission and were prepared to accept a wholly Afghan but independent complaints commission. The president, I was told, appeared impressed that the normally fractious opposition appeared totally united on pushing for these electoral reforms.
The announcement on Dec 4 that the cabinet had rejected the proposals of the Independent Election Commission for the retention of the Election Complaints Commission and had instead approved for submission to parliament an election law that would ask the Afghan Supreme Court to set up a special ‘election’ bench to consider all complaints came, therefore, as a rude surprise.
Many parliamentarians termed the new law “ridiculous” and reiterated calls for retaining the Election Complaints Commission and renewed the demand for foreign observers to be part of this commission.
Within the next few days this proposed law will be debated in parliament and indications are that the lower house will reject it but the upper house, dominated by Karzai appointees will endorse it creating another political impasse.
In the meanwhile, the Independent Election Commission has warned that voter registration, presumably as part of preparing new electoral rolls, has not yet started and that time was running out. This and the manner in which the registration is carried out may become another point of conflict.
This political crisis is important in itself but it is also going to have an impact on the efforts that Pakistan is making to promote reconciliation. One of the demands of the Charter for Democracy unrelated to the elections was that the opposition be associated with any reconciliation talks held with the Taliban.
This was a demand that would have the support of Pakistan and other members of the international community since it was clearly understood that no enduring reconciliation was possible without the concurrence of what was known as the Northern Alliance, the components of which form a large part of the opposition.
If the opposition and Karzai remain at loggerheads on the election question it is difficult to imagine that the former will cooperate with Karzai in working out acceptable terms for reconciliation.
There is no doubt that Karzai is pushing for reconciliation and desperately looking for ways to establish contacts with credible Taliban leaders. The attempted assassination of Asadullah Khalid, recently appointed head of the Afghan intelligence service, was carried out by someone who posed as a peace emissary from the Taliban.
Karzai, as was to be expected, suggested that the man who came from Pakistan had carried out the attempt in a sophisticated operation that could only have been planned by an intelligence agency, thus pointing a finger at the ISI. The truth is that in the quest for credible Taliban contacts Asadullah had been duped and had failed to take the precautions that would have been dictated by the assassination of the former head of the High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani.
As head of intelligence he would also have known that whatever Afghan culture may be with regard to a very thorough search of honoured guests, the Al Qaeda operative who tried unsuccessfully to assassinate the then Saudi deputy interior minister Prince Nayef in 2009 carried the explosives in his underwear and that thereafter a search of even sensitive areas had become de rigueur.
At the time of writing this, the meeting of the Turkish, Afghan and Pakistani heads of state in Turkey to promote further cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan was yet to be held but the atmosphere is already polluted by the Karzai allegation.
Even so it can be expected that Pakistan in its own interest will push for reconciliation, with reports of possible discussions of concrete proposals for sharing power with the Taliban in the centre and Taliban rule in some provinces.
This would represent an advance. But Karzai will have to put his own house in order before this effort can succeed and that means heading off the political impasse that looms in Kabul.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.