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Pakistan's Stake in the Afghan Election

Interviewee: Daniel S. Markey, CFR Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
August 20, 2009

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The August 20 presidential elections in Afghanistan are seen as a crucial step forward in what U.S. President Barack Obama has dubbed a "war of necessity." But for many in neighboring Pakistan, a country wracked by its own domestic security and political crises, this "election is a bit of a sideshow and much less relevant or exciting than it was the last time around," says CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey. He says Pakistan's interest lies in an election that yields a legitimate government and brings political and military stability to Afghanistan. Pakistan would also like a friendly government in Kabul that allows Islamabad to project its influence in Afghanistan. Markey says Pakistanis tend to see incumbent President Hamid Karzai as the best option "simply because he's a known quantity."

What's at stake for Pakistan in the Afghan presidential election?

For Pakistan, the concern has to do with basic political and military stability in Afghanistan. The election is one piece in that process. From a Pakistan perspective, an Afghanistan that returns to deep instability as it has in the past, specifically in the 1990s, would be a cause for concern for Pakistan because it would probably bring greater instability inside Pakistan. An election that works and yields a legitimate government of some kind are basic interests from a Pakistan perspective. The other side, of course, is that Pakistan would like to project its influence into Afghanistan. So to the extent that various candidates offer different potential for Pakistan to do so, Islamabad is more or less a supporter of them. Pakistanis tend to see Karzai as maybe the best of the two serious options--the other being Abdullah Abdullah--simply because he's a known quantity and a Pashtun who has a reasonably good working relationship with the current government in Islamabad.

Karzai's close links with India have given rise to concerns in Islamabad. From a Pakistani strategic perspective, who would they prefer to be in power in Kabul?

From a Pakistani perspective, there are no serious good options. You're right because Karzai, although he's a known quantity and gets along with [Pakistani] President [Asif Ali] Zardari, is not seen to be a friend, per se, of Pakistanis. He is perceived to have links to India. He studied in India. He's been very critical in the past of Pakistan, particularly when President [Pervez] Musharraf was in charge. He's not an easy ally from a Pakistani point of view, and he's not prone to a lot of Pakistani influence. But neither would Abdullah Abdullah be a great outcome from a Pakistani point of view. Although he's half Pashtun, he's also half Tajik. He's most closely associated with the Northern Alliance and the former leader of that anti-Taliban mujahadeen movement, Ahmad Shah Massoud. He's also a Panjshiri from the north of Afghanistan. None of these things make Abdullah Abdullah a particularly positive choice for Pakistan either.

There's much buzz about the Afghan election here in the United States. How do you think Pakistan is viewing this election?

Although Pakistan has interest in this election, Pakistan is also preoccupied with its own politics and security situation, both of which have been precarious in recent years. For many Pakistanis, the Afghan election is a bit of a sideshow and much less relevant or exciting than it was the last time around. The last time around, there were many more Afghan refugees in Pakistan who were participating in the election. Now that's not the case. From a Pakistani point of view, this Afghan election is getting attention, but not nearly what it once got and also not as much as it's getting in Washington.

"For many Pakistanis, the Afghan election is a bit of a sideshow and much less relevant or exciting than it was the last time around."

As you mentioned, unlike the 2004 election, this time there's no mechanism in place for the Afghan refugees in Pakistan to vote. According to the UN refugee agency, 45 percent of the estimated 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan would be eligible voters. How do you think this affects the election outcome, as well as its legitimacy?

My sense is that Karzai did well among Afghan refugee voters based in Pakistan in the last election. He was able to mobilize those groups fairly effectively. My guess, without any recourse to significant polling data or anything like that, would be that this hurts Karzai. The broader question about the legitimacy of the election relates both to participation by refugees, but also to participation by Afghans throughout the south: Many in the south, seeing such violence, may choose not to go to the polls. If we see very low voter turnout, as some people fear, this will call into question the basic legitimacy of the exercise. It gives a propaganda victory to the Taliban, even if it doesn't mean that the Taliban are actually any more popular than they were before the election. It simply means they were able to be very disruptive, and it shows that they are still an effective force. That's part of their game plan.

If there's a runoff or protests in Afghanistan because people don't accept the electoral outcome, what effect would that have on Pakistan's stability?

Anything that contributes to instability in Afghanistan will have some spillover effect into Pakistan. The potential of a runoff means that we'll have another month to six weeks of political uncertainty in Afghanistan, which contributes to opportunities for militants to continue causing trouble. [Under Afghanistan's election rules, if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two candidates must be held within two weeks after the announcement of the election results. Many analysts expect a runoff, if necessary, would be held in October.] That all plays to the disadvantage of Pakistan. Aside from that, the real issue is simply whether this election provides a firm foundation for politics in Afghanistan going forward. If you see a lot of contentious activity during this period in between the first election and the second, it will raise more questions about legitimacy and make whatever government that comes out of this probably weaker than it would be if it won through a popular majority right from the outset.

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan

Are there any signals from Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan on how much of a threat they pose to the election? What's really at stake for, say, Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura or for the Pakistani Taliban in this election?

[Mullah Omar] presumably is banking on the idea that over the long term, the project of democracy and this type of democracy is going to fail in Afghanistan, and that eventually he and his colleagues can return to power in Kabul. Anything that looks like a setback for the international coalition and the government in Kabul is a victory for him.

For the Pakistani Taliban, times have gotten very different and very difficult of late. [Pakistani Taliban leader] Baitullah Mehsud's death, or apparent death, is a setback for them. They seem to be in disarray. I can't imagine that they're spending a significant amount of time strategizing about the Afghan election. They're much more concerned about issues of succession within their own organization and still looking inward inside of Pakistan related to activities by the Pakistani military, both in the Swat valley and in the Waziristans, where Mehsud used to be located and the core of the Pakistani Taliban is still based.

Is there any cooperation going on, particularly in the context of this election, between Pakistan, the United States, and the Afghan government?

We've seen senior-level discussions between U.S. military commanders and the Pakistani army chief related to the Afghan election. There is a desire to try and limit the military problems that will happen on election day. To some degree, the Pakistani involvement in that process the last time around was quite meaningful. This time, they'll try to quell the potential for violence to the extent that they can. A lot of the problem has to do with lack of military capacity on the Pakistani side insofar as not being able to shut down a very difficult border with Afghanistan. Of course, a lot of the violence in Afghanistan is already internal to Afghanistan and doesn't depend, at least in a day-to-day manner, on those sanctuaries, even if it might depend upon them ultimately for safe haven and planning. The ability of the Pakistanis to do much in the next day or so is relatively limited. If we go to a second round of elections, I assume that the U.S., Pakistan, and Afghan governments will work as hard as they can to try to limit the levels of violence during that period as well. But I'm not optimistic that the Pakistanis can or will be able to do that much on that score.

"Unfortunately, because Karzai is likely to win [in the elections], it is likely to yield something that looks more like continuity than change."

Do you expect this election to make any significant improvements in Afghan governance that could help U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in the region?

Unfortunately, because Karzai is likely to win, it is likely to yield something that looks more like continuity than change. There is a potential, as with all political events, for more significant transformation. The real question, assuming that Karzai wins or even if his chief rival Abdullah Abdullah wins, is who gets appointed to the various ministries. There, the international community will weigh in with its expectations and pressures to try to get the best possible cabinet in place. Of course, it's well-known that Karzai has made a lot of promises during the election campaign. Many of these promises are likely to suggest that he will need to appoint people who in previous ways have been understood as warlords. He will need to pay them off in some way, either with governorships or ministries. The overlap between being a warlord and being an effective and capable governor is not particularly good. Everybody is a bit worried that we'll see more of the same, and that this will sap the energy of the average Afghan and make it harder to build an effective Afghan state, even as we put significantly more in the way of military and training efforts into place in the coming years.

In the end, how important are these elections to U.S. interests?

They are very significant because the United States, the international community, and to some degree a significant proportion of the Afghan people have staked a bet on the idea that a new democratic Afghanistan is a project worth pursuing. For that reason, it would have been very dangerous and counterproductive to step away from this election or hold them off indefinitely. Just holding the election is an important sign--if not of progress, then at least of sustained effort towards that end state of a democratic Afghanistan. But in the near term, the best that we can hope is that they don't prove to be even more disruptive and provide even more propaganda value to the insurgency, and that perhaps at the margins we'll see some changes in terms of political leadership that will ultimately work well.

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