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Afghan Elections: A Perilous Time

Interviewee: Ahmed Rashid, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Pakistan, Pacific Council on International Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 17, 2009

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Ahmed Rashid, a leading expert on Afghanistan, says the August 20 presidential election is "critically important" to achieving political stability in that country. "Political stability needs legitimacy, and a legitimate government is central to that," he says. But he worries that none of candidates will garner the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff election in October. If the turnout is kept low by fears of the Taliban and is below 30 percent, Rashid is worried this could lead to constitutional deadlock. He says: "there will be appeals by almost everyone to say that this is not a legitimate election, and that we'll need another election. " Separately, Rashid says talks could be possible with some moderate elements of the Taliban, those who are fighting for local grievances that could be addressed both by the international community and by the Afghan government.

Why is this presidential election in Afghanistan important, or is it not so important?

It is critically important considering the new Obama plan, which is focusing for the first time since 2001 on rebuilding the country and driving out al-Qaeda. But there is a timeline here with the Americans wanting to achieve results by the end of next year. It is absolutely imperative that political stability is there in order to carry out many of the reconstruction elements that the international community and the Afghans want. Political stability needs legitimacy, and a legitimate government is central to that.

Most observers say that President Hamid Karzai is almost guaranteed a reelection victory. Is that your analysis?

There's been a bit of change in the last few weeks. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah--the former foreign minister, a member of the Northern Alliance [the main opposition during the Taliban rule and a U.S. ally in defeating the Taliban in 2001], and an ethnic Tajik--is going to give him a good run for his money. I don't think Abdullah will win, but there's a possibility that a number of candidates will get 5 to 10 percent of the vote, and no one candidate will be able to gain the 51 percent that is needed to win the election, in which case there would be a runoff. Of course, the fear is that the runoff will create many problems because it will not be until another eight weeks or so, later in October.

There's a great deal of criticism of Karzai in the American and international media saying that he's not a competent leader. Do you share that criticism, or do you think he can pull the country together after the election, if he wins?

Unfortunately, the real cause for the lack of good governance in Afghanistan is the lack of attention from the Bush administration: the lack of resources, money, civilian aid, etc. As a result of that, Karzai himself has started to deliver on several fronts--like drugs--which were under his control. But the bulk of the criticism that is being directed at him for quite some time now was really a result of the failure of the international community to come up with the goods. Unfortunately, he has now gone back to making alliances with his old warlord colleagues who were necessary for victory in 2001 but who he dumped in 2004. That is a tragedy, because Afghanistan needs younger people and a new generation rather than the old flock. The other candidates have adopted a very different array of vice presidents. We've seen some very good people coming up--women, young men who have not been in politics before. Afghanistan needs that, and unfortunately Karzai is just going after the old warlords.

Are you talking about Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord and prime minister, who is listed by the United States as a "global terrorist" and Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord, both of whom now support Karzai?

I'm talking in particular about his vice presidential candidate, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a warlord for the Northern Alliance who he dumped as defense minister in 2004 in what was seen as a very brave move. Now he's taking him back. He doesn't bring any votes or popularity. In fact, he's very unpopular among his own people. There are other warlords amongst the Pashtuns, Hazaras, and Tajiks which he's picked to ally with in this election.

There was a debate on Afghan television last night involving the main candidates, minus Abdullah. Karzai again talked about the possibility of having a loya jirga [a political meeting of tribal elders] with the Taliban participating. There's constant talk about a negotiation with the Taliban. Is this really feasible?

It is. Many of the Afghan Taliban, the commanders and rank and file, are fighting for a whole variety of reasons that have nothing to do with global jihad, al-Qaeda, or even wanting to seize power. A lot of them are fighting because they're fed up with the lack of progress in their areas because of the destruction caused by American bombing. A lot of them may be getting paid by the Taliban. All sorts of things. These are the sort of categories that people today call the "moderate Taliban." They're not necessarily moderate, but they are people who are fighting for local grievances that could be addressed both by the international community and by the Afghan government.

I fear very much that a constitutional deadlock is possible after this election due to these various factors--low turnout and charges of rigging.

What should we look for in the election itself? There have been reports that many areas won't be able to vote.

The problem with this election is that it has sucked up all of the energy of the Obama administration and its new policy. None of the new policy can really be implemented because there's a total preoccupation by the U.S. military and the civilian side to make sure that these elections go through. It's going to take the whole of this year and it will suck up the oxygen from development and from reconstruction. When we get to the election, there are two or three real problems. The first is that there could be a drastically low turnout of under 30 percent. If it's under 30 percent, there will be appeals by almost everyone to say that this is not a legitimate election, and that we'll need another election. This may even include Karzai. The other problem is that there are going to be massive charges of rigging no matter who wins. If Karzai wins, the opposition is going to accuse him of rigging the election. If Karzai does not do well, he'll say his voters in the south, where the Taliban insurgency is strong, were not allowed to come out and vote. I fear very much that a constitutional deadlock is possible after this election due to these various factors--low turnout and charges of rigging.

What was the turnout in the past election?

The turnout in the parliamentary elections in 2005 was 55 percent. But in the presidential election of 2004, it was over 70 percent.

You think it might be under 30 percent because of intimidation by the Taliban?

Exactly.  If it is under 30 percent, we're in trouble. It's because of the security situation. In the last seventy-two hours, the Taliban have gone from saying they'll block the roads to cut off voters from the voting stations, to saying they'd chop off the fingers of anyone with ink on their fingers [a sign that a person has voted], and most recently they've said that [they will] attack the polling stations. None of these things were done last time. They were not strong enough in 2004 to attack polling stations and they let the elections happen.

If there's a runoff election, do you think the opposition would coalesce behind a candidate opposing Karzai? Is it possible that Karzai could be defeated in a runoff?

If there is a runoff, you will have this critical six to eight weeks in which there will be accusations, charges, countercharges, a vacuum of leadership. It will be a very tricky political situation. Anything could happen in that period. There could be assassinations and the Taliban will step up their campaign. Internally, there could be a constitutional deadlock. The opposition could also say that they do not accept a runoff election with Karzai still in the chair, and that there should be an interim president. There could be all sorts of things with a runoff, which would really destabilize the situation.

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