On 15 May, Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah accepted the poll results and began readying themselves for the run-off according to the Constitution, scheduled for 14 June. The results of the run-off are scheduled to be declared on 22 June and the next president will assume office within 30 days of the declaration of results.
What are the Afghans’ perceptions vis-à-vis the candidates? What role will ethnic identities play in the upcoming election? How comfortable is Pakistan with the Afghan election results and projections?
Ethnicity and the Afghan Presidency
Overall, most Afghan citizens have moved on from choosing their leadership solely on ethnic lines. For the most part, their primary concerns appear to be security, economy, stability and development. However, the run-off to elect the next president of Afghanistan will allow for some ethnic bias to play a somewhat decisive role.
This election will show the level of support Abdullah and Ghani enjoy among the Pashtun electorate – the largest ethnic group in the country. From the time of announcement of candidates – and their running mates – the first round of elections promised a level playing field wherein there was no vote bank that could be completely co-opted. This was essentially due to the diversity in the ethnic backgrounds of the running mates (vice-presidential candidates), given that all presidential candidates were Pashtuns.
The role of ethnicity will come to the fore in the 14 June poll. Abdullah Abdullah is half Tajik and half Pashtun in ethnicity, while Ashraf Ghani is a Pashtun belonging to the nomadic Kuchi tribes. Abdullah was the late Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud’s close associate, and someone who fought the Taliban and the Soviets. This, coupled with his lineage of Pashtun-Tajik – essentially uniting the north and the south – could work in his favour.
Ghani on the other hand, is true-blue Pashtun, a veteran academician and a former finance minister with experience of working with international organisations. Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan believe that they are not adequately represented in the parliament. Given how Abdullah is perceived more as a Tajik than a Pashtun, there is a chance that the votes might swing in favour of Ghani.
Additionally the complex web of alliances being struck by the candidates with disqualified candidates and other influential actors from the country is overwhelming.
On the whole, although ethnicity is not the primary driver for most Afghans towards casting their vote, the ethnicity factor will play a greater role during the run-off than it did during the first round of elections.
Pakistan and the Afghan Election
Given the intimacy Abdullah shares with India, it is likely that Pakistan will back Ghani’s candidacy. This is not because Ghani is pro-Pakistan, but because Abdullah is extremely pro-India. The recently announced Hezb-e-Islami backing for Ghani is a clear indication of Islamabad (or Rawalpindi’s) preferences. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s 11 May visit to Tehran likely saw closed door discussions vis-à-vis India’s growing influence in Afghanistan, and more importantly, the future trajectory of the country following the withdrawal of the Western troops. A stable neighbour is in Iran’s interest – as is in Pakistan and India’s interests – and Tehran is and will continue to be more New Delhi-friendly in its efforts towards ensuring a secure Afghanistan. Given the religious ideological differences it has with Pakistan and the Saudi-funded terrorists, Iran will likely be more guarded and intensify its efforts to secure its eastern borders. Tehran will remain pragmatic and cooperate with Pakistan wherever it finds necessary, but likely not in a nature that will threaten Indian interests in Afghanistan.
Interestingly, the Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan, General Raheel Sharif, visited Kabul on 19 May to discuss security concerns with the chiefs of the Afghan National Army and the ISAF. This could mean that the Pakistani army might be looking at Afghanistan more pragmatically. Given Pakistan’s sealing of the Af-Pak border on 5 April, there appears to be a likelihood that the Pakistani army plans to engage with Kabul to tackle the insurgency in their western borders. Already, within two days of the visit, the Pakistani army launched air strikes in North Waziristan, targeting suspected Taliban hideouts. Furthermore, there might be a chance that Rawalpindi is trying to kill two birds with one stone: dealing with the Pakistani Taliban and thereby eventually de-stretching the army, and, establishing secure routes for energy supply in the future.
Taliban and the Afghan Election
The first round of the election was held on April 5 with surprisingly low instances of terrorist violence. One narrative that did the rounds was that the Taliban might have refrained from attacking the citizenry in a bid to gain some legitimacy, and eventually, stake a claim in the governing structures of the government. However, the Taliban kick-started their spring offensive on 12 May and their declaration as published on their website as well as spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid’s press statements indicate otherwise.
The security prospects for 14 June seems bleak; but if the morale of the Taliban has to be substantially damaged, the Afghan citizens and the Afghan National Security Forces must ensure that the Taliban’s Operation ‘Khyber’ does not impede the democratic process.