Our Man in Kabul: America and the Next President of Afghanistan

What does Washington hope for from Afghanistan's next leader?

After 13 long years, over a trillion dollars spent and thousands of lost lives, the United States is finally bowing out of Afghanistan. To outsiders, Afghanistan might still seem like a fragile state racked by continuous conflict, teetering on the edge of collapse.

However, much has been achieved since the US and its allies drove the Taliban from Kabul in 2001. Health indicators remain grim, but they have made leaps since aid began flowing in over a decade ago. Women, once repressed under the brutal Taliban regime, have been empowered to seek education and participate in civic life. Desperately needed infrastructure and relatively stable democratic institutions have been constructed to serve the Afghan people. Prior to the US-led invasion, literacy rates were among the lowest in the world, but Afghanistan is now educating a generation of youth who know the perils of war all too well. Sporadic violence continues, but Afghan security services have begun assuming the task of securing the country from their Western allies. And on April 5, Afghans will be able to exercise their democratic rights when they head to the polls to select their next president.

Karzai's On His Way Out

With the majority of American personnel set to leave in the coming months, many analysts fear Afghanistan will descend into another brutal civil war, and all the investments of the international community will be for naught. Officials in Washington are paying close attention to who will replace Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's next president, in the country's first democratic transfer of power. Karzai will not be able to run again due to term limits.

Over the past decade, the US has had a querulous relationship with the cantankerous Karzai, who has enjoyed flouting America in public while requesting more aid behind the scenes. The White House is now looking for a partner, if there is one among the candidates, who is willing to cooperate and continue to build upon the delicate progress that has been made thus far.

Afghanistan's electoral body and their Western partners have had 18 months to work to avoid the widespread fraud that marred the 2009 elections. The Taliban have threatened violence against those who participate in the vote, but with all the preparation that has gone into the upcoming election, it should nevertheless serve as Afghanistan's freest and fairest to date.

The first round of voting takes place on April 5. There are eight candidates on the ballot, but if none of them receive above 50% of the vote — something that is likely — a two-man run-off will be held on May 28, opening the door for manipulation, back-room dealing, intimidation, violence and a perilous power vacuum.  

The question is, what does Washington hope for from Afghanistan's next leader?           

Washington's Priority

On the list of American priorities for Afghanistan, nothing trumps the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). This pact would allow a small contingent of US troops, up to 10,000, to remain on Afghan soil to counter a resurgent Taliban and assist in military support and the continued development of combat readiness of the 325,000strong Afghanistan National Security Force (ANSF).

Without the BSA, the Obama administration has reiterated that all its combat forces will depart Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The ANSF receives most of its funding from the US and its NATO allies.

If the BSA is not in place, the departure of American forces will also likely coincide with the withdrawal of vital financial assistance necessary for Kabul to maintain its security forces. It is feared that the abrupt withdrawal of American support could lead to a rise in desertions from the Afghan Army, which is already plagued by a desertion rate that forces them to enlist 50,000 new men every year. 

Less widely reported is the fact that the BSA would allow Washington to continue its controversial drone program from bases in the country to counter Islamist terrorism along the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Karzai has refused to sign the BSA even though the measure was widely supported by the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan's assembly of tribal elders. The Afghan president claims his intransigence is due to the refusal of the US to end controversial night raids or suspend its jurisdiction over military crimes committed on Afghan soil. Karzai was characteristically opaque when he demanded peace as a condition for his agreement to the BSA, but chances are he is hedging his bet against the uncertain future of his country.

All three leading presidential candidates have vowed to sign the agreement that would bolster Afghanistan's fragile stability and reassure the international community that the country's future is not as bleak as it seems. The current leading contender for the presidency is Abdullah Abdullah, who was once Karzai's foreign minister and was the runner-up in the 2009 election.

Other top contenders include Zalmai Rassoul, who is close to the Karzai family but has not been officially endorsed by the president himself, and the Western-educated technocrat, Ashraf Ghani.

Recent polling has shown Ghani and Abdullah as the two leading candidates, which would indicate that if either did poorly it may be due to substantial irregularities in the voting process.

Whoever assumes the presidency will have to work closely with their US counterparts who have invested so much in creating a stable Afghanistan. What Washington wants is someone who is more open to cooperation than the obstinate Karzai was. It is no secret that the White House hopes Ghani wins. A former finance minister who once worked at the World Bank, Ghani is the most reform-minded of the candidates. In reality, the White House is probably more concerned about who doesn't win — someone who will foment ethnic tensions.  

Tribal Patterns

One of the biggest issues facing Afghan voters is one of tribal loyalty. Afghanistan is a fractious country made up of a variety of ethnic groups (42% Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek, and 13% other) that fall down the taxonomic rung into tribal loyalties. It doesn't help that 19% of the country's population are also Shi'a Muslim, who often clash with the Sunni majority.

In a country divided by so many loyalties, voting among the electorate usually falls along ethnic lines. Ethnic tensions and extreme variants of Islam (as practiced by the Taliban) have never made the best ingredients for democratic success. However, Afghans have seen the destruction civil war can cause when dialogue is abandoned in favor of violence.

Ghani and Rassoul are both ethnic Pashtuns, something that could cause them to split the vote among Pashtuns — the largest and most powerful of Afghanistan's ethnic groups. After dropping out of the contest, Karzai's brother endorsed Rassoul, who is seen to be the incumbent president's favored candidate.

The current front-runner, Abdullah, is of mixed Pashtun-Tajik background, which could allow him to draw broad support from Afghanistan's two largest ethnic groups. However, it might also cost him votes among ethnic Pashtuns in the south of the country who view him as Tajik, especially if he is faced off against a Pashtun candidate in a run-off election. Abdullah ran against President Karzai in a run-off in 2009, but withdrew in protest after allegations of fraud surfaced.

One quirk of the Afghan electoral process is that each presidential candidate runs with two vice-presidents, usually of a different ethnicity in order to maximize appeal. Most of the candidates have done themselves justice by suitably diversifying their tickets.

Ghani has allied himself with former Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, who as a running-mate could draw support from his base in the north, while Rassoul has added Habiba Sarobi, the first female vice-presidential candidate in Afghanistan's history and an ethnic Hazara. Not to be outdone, Abdullah has added former strongman and ethnic Hazara Mohammad Mohaqiq to his ticket.

The threat of ballot stuffing and rampant fraud that hindered the 2009 elections remains potent. It is feared that Karzai will somehow manipulate the results in his favor to maintain the influence and safety he and his relatives have come to enjoy during his time as president. He also wants to see that his legacy, however tarnished, endures.

In Afghanistan, with billions of dollars of foreign aid still pouring in, graft has become a way of life. Many powerful figures in Afghanistan will be eager to endorse and support, even violently, the candidate who is most willing to protect their interests. This will play a powerful role in a country still racked by tribalism and cause grief to the donors who are sick of watching their money end up in the hands of corrupt officials or warlords.

It is believed that intimidation by the Taliban will cause at least 10% of polling stations to shut. This is on top of the fact that 21 million voter cards have been distributed beyond the estimated 13.5 million eligible voters.

Additionally, the shadow of Pakistan's intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), continues to loom large. Many Afghans believe Pakistan is bankrolling the Taliban to maintain influence over their crippled homeland.

Add tribalism, corruption, sectarianism, a lucrative drug-trade, an ongoing insurgency, plus foreign influence, and you have an Afghan election.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) will have its hands full when citizens go to the polls. Approximately 200,000 Afghan personnel will be deployed to protect the election, in what is the largest military operation in the country since the initial invasion back in 2001, to allow Afghans the choice of who will lead their country at this critical juncture in its rocky history.

The View from Washington

What Washington wants more than anything is an independent Afghanistan that is able to grow and develop into a modern democratic country peacefully. To do this, Afghanistan requires stability and the ability of the central government to effectively counter both the Taliban and terrorist elements alike.

The US fears abandoning its nation-building efforts too early and wasting what precious little it has gained. The mission it set out to accomplish over a decade ago is nowhere near being accomplished.

At this point, America and its allies realize how far Afghanistan is from successful sustainability. Continued American military presence through the BSA would provide the best chance of maintaining the tenuous status quo long enough to train and finance the ANSF to the level necessary to ensure the survival of the state. Without an American presence, there is the all-too-real possibility that the Taliban could make enough gains to the point where Afghanistan descends into civil war once again. 

It may be a hard pill to swallow in Washington, but Afghanistan will soon be out of its hands. Whoever assumes the presidential post will become a necessary ally of the White House. Whether he is their man in Kabul or not, the task ahead is herculean — but success, however remote, is still achievable. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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