THE second round of the Afghan elections is due on June 14. The first round has thrown up Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani as the front runners. The second round is required by the Afghan constitution, which states that if no candidate secures more than 50pc of the votes cast, a second round should be held among the top two contenders.
The Afghan elections are being watched very closely as the whole process and its final result will have an impact on future developments in Afghanistan and the region. Observers, especially Kabul’s neighbours, have interest in the way the situation develops as it will have a direct bearing on the post-December drawdown of US/Nato forces.
Pakistan wants a government in Afghanistan that it can influence to whatever level possible, and an Afghanistan in which India has little to no presence. Its own history has taught it to consider religious extremists as its best guarantee to achieve these aims. It has pursued a policy of supporting Talibanised Pakhtuns in Afghanistan instead of traditional or secular nationalist Pakhtuns.
The non-Pakhtun population has viewed Pakistan suspiciously in its power struggle with Pakhtuns. The feeling is reciprocated by Pakistan, which considers non-Pakhtuns friendly to Iran and India.
Pakistan is finding it difficult to adjust to changes in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s policy relies on the ethnic division in Afghanistan. Rather than wanting Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pakhtun, to win, it appears favourably inclined towards Dr Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik. Its preferences are apparently based on the simple calculation that Abdullah’s victory will push Pakhtuns to rise against him, pushing them towards the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan seems wary of Ashraf Ghani, a secular modernist Pakhtun. His victory may mean decrease in the support of Pakhtuns to the Taliban.
This calculation seems to be simplistic and exaggerates the ethnic divide in Afghanistan. No one can deny the existence of ethnic tensions in Afghanistan, but looking at the tickets of both the leading candidates, Dr Abdullah has an ethnic Pakhtun and Dr Ashraf an Uzbek as running mate. Zalmai Rassoul, a Pakhtun (who was a presidential candidate in the first round) has announced support for Dr Abdullah while the brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Tajik Mujahideen leader, has announced support for Ashraf Ghani.
Whatever the result of the Afghan elections, Pak-Afghan relations will not undergo much change. Neither Dr Abdullah nor Ashraf Ghani will be able to remove suspicions of Pakistan in the Afghan mind, so both will continue to cultivate relations with India. Neither will be shy of signing the bilateral security agreement with the US. Similarly, neither of them would have a much different attitude towards the Taliban.
More important is the impact of the election process than the results. The first round surprised most Afghan watchers by the level of participation, peace and relative credibility. Most in Pakistan were not expecting this. There was a general perception among Pakistani commentators, especially those considered close to the establishment, that the polls would be disastrous. The elections have created confidence both in the Afghan people and the state, with the Afghan security forces playing a significant role.
The election was organised and provided security by the Afghans themselves, under watchful international eyes and support, both financial and technical. The first round has created an atmosphere of trust that will help the Afghan state deal with the insurgent challenges with more confidence.
It has also attracted many of those sitting on the fence, not sure of what will happen and afraid of a Taliban comeback. Yet chances of a Taliban comeback after 2014 appear almost negligible. This is not to say that peace is around the corner. There is still a long way to go, but the election process has proved to be a big leap forward.
If Pakistan continues to be guided by its India-centric security policy looking to religious extremists as tools in pursuing its Afghan policy, we may witness its regional isolation increasing and also greater internal intolerance, extremism and violence posing a serious threat to the fragile democracy in this country. If Pakistan changes (and some argue that it has) and takes the much-delayed across-the-board action against the local Taliban and other terrorists, it may be able to arrest the increasing lawlessness.
However, there are those who still are not ready to believe there is enough evidence of change in Pakistan. The best evidence will be if action is taken without differentiating between the good and bad Taliban.
Pakistan is finding it difficult to adjust to the new and changing Afghanistan. There is still a role for Islamabad; however, its ability to influence the outcome has been reduced.
Pakistan can still be part of a solution and become a relevant and significant player post-2014 if it adjusts to the fast-changing situation in Afghanistan as well as in the region.
The writer teaches International Relations at the University of Peshawar.
Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2014
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