THE general dearth of positive news out of Kabul partly accounts for the enthusiasm generated by last Saturday’s presidential and local council elections.
Preliminary estimates put the turnout at almost 60pc of the voting population, which is a healthy figure by most standards — and particularly, as the international media has been keen to emphasise, in the face of Taliban threats of reprisals against all participants in the electoral process.
In the event, the day passed without any egregious instances of violence, thankfully. In the run-up to election day, the Taliban had on several occasions demonstrated a disconcerting tendency to infiltrate supposedly secure areas in the Afghan capital.The enhanced security arrangements, handled mainly by Afghan forces, may indeed have served as a deterrent — although the possibility of a strategic decision by the Taliban to temporarily lie low cannot be discounted. In either case, the outcome was a pleasant surprise.
Not everything went smoothly, of course. It is not hard to put a positive spin on the fact that polling stations across the country began running out of ballot papers, but there were also reports of ballot stuffing and voter intimidation in some areas — although the scale remained indeterminate.
So did the outcome of the race to replace Hamid Karzai, who has remained in office since being ensconced in the presidential post by Western powers in 2001, winning elections of questionable validity in 2004 and 2009. The likeliest scenario appears to be a run-off contest next month between two former ministers, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.
Karzai did not publicly back any of the candidates, but apparently persuaded his brother Qayyum Karzai to pull out of the race and throw his support behind Zalmai Rassoul — whom preliminary results put in third place.
The United States, too, did not expressly favour any particular contestant, but there is no obvious reason why it would object to either Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank employee, or Abdullah, who initially served as Karzai’s foreign minister but emerged as a surprisingly strong presidential candidate in 2009. That was the year when, according to former US defence secretary Robert Gates, Washington sought to get rid of Karzai in a “clumsy and failed putsch” by manipulating the election result.
In an interview last month with The Washington Post, Karzai dated his disenchantment with his benefactor-in-chief back to 2007, blaming it on a surge in civilian casualties and the refusal of his American allies to heed his protests. He also expressed his displeasure over US presidential statements indicating that the primary goal of the military deployment was to serve American security interests.
It would surely have been naive to believe otherwise, especially after the experience of the 1980s, or for that matter to expect that the US-led intervention would somehow diverge from the pattern of previous military misadventures in various parts of the globe. At any rate, matters came to a head late last year when Karzai refused to endorse a bilateral security agreement (BSA) intended to formalise an arrangement whereby some US troops would stay behind following this year’s broader pullout.
Barack Obama huffed and puffed, claiming that unless Karzai signed on the dotted line, every single American soldier would be gone by the end of 2014. He eventually blinked, accepting that Karzai’s successor could seal the deal.
The Afghan president suggested to the Post last month that he would have relented had there been a peace process in place. Both Kabul and Washington — not always in coordination with each other — have in recent years explored the possibility of negotiations with the Taliban, without evidently getting very far. Efforts to divide the Taliban have also borne insubstantial fruit.
Afghanistan’s progress towards some form of normality after 35 years of incessant conflict will inevitably be contingent to a considerable extent on the conduct of its neighbours —- above all Pakistan, whose Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which became deeply involved in Afghan affairs in the 1980s, is accused of still harbouring ambitions of influencing the course of events, notably through ties with Taliban factions.
Apart from the fraught geopolitics and Taliban terrorism, Afghanistan also faces a range of other enormous challenges. In the past decade, infant mortality has dropped sharply and primary education has expanded, but poverty and malnutrition remain endemic, corruption is rampant and the poppy harvest tends to exceed expectations.
The jubilations that accompanied last weekend’s election were understandable but, sadly, may well turn out to have been premature. The peaceful transfer of power — which could yet take a couple of months to eventuate — would indeed be a milestone, but on a road whose course remains mired in uncertainties.