Afghanistan faces the bleak prospect of a murderous return to civil war despite rosy western reports of a successful April 5 election – which turns out to have been neither free nor fair nor representative, and which delivered up as possible vice president a warlord known for his brutality.
On April 17, Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Afghanistan Taliban, reportedly sent what was described as a wake-up call to start preparations for the post-election annual spring offensive, which is expected to be the decisive battle against the withdrawing NATO troops to nip the “evil” – the new government – in the bud and establish the Taliban’s sway.
Pakistani diplomatic circles confirm that Mullah Omar previously convinced the Pakistani Taliban to open a dialogue with the Pakistani government. However, its purpose was not simply to establish peace but to conserve energy for the spring offensive. This latest development has given sufficient evidence to answer why the Afghan Taliban didn’t launch major attacks during tne elections, and why the elections went relatively peacefully on the surface.
Similarly, the call by the Ameer of the Afghan Taliban to the Pakistani Taliban for a truce between the warring factions of the Pakistani Taliban has confirmed earlier reports that Mullah Omar used his influence to persuade the Pakistani Taliban to initiate peace talks with the Pakistan government, primarily to prevent a Pakistani military action in Waziristan before the withdrawal of the US-led coalition forces.
The Ameer is said to believe that instead of wasting energy in battling with the Pakistan Army, the Taliban on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border must prepare themselves for a decisive battle after the US withdrawal. The Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban also collaborated when the Pakistani Taliban made a clandestine deal with the Pakistani security establishment in January 2013, just before the start of the spring offensive that year.
Notwithstanding the Afghan Taliban’s ongoing preparations for the spring offensive and whatever its impact on Pakistan’s security, Afghanistan’s internal situation remains extremely uncertain even though the elections have been described as successful. The popular assumption that peace would follow falls on its head when we take into account the Taliban’s position of strength, preparation for the battle, and then the fractured nature of the election itself.
Media reports indicate the elections turned out to be successful simply because they attracted more voters than the 2009 polls. But numbers do not always speak for themselves. The bright picture, which is being heralded as a watershed, was in reality confined only to Kabul and its surrounding areas where the Taliban don’t have much control or even enough presence to do any serious damage despite sporadic attacks in the capital city.
Pictures showing the queues of “enthusiastic” voters were mostly from the same region, which is relatively secure and which has benefited hugely from the infusion of Western donor money and from the presence of NGOs that have created jobs, small businesses and a nascent TV and print media.
Life for a thin layer of Afghans in cities of this region has improved. However, this thin layer becomes even thinner when we look at the other side of the country. Almost 75 percent of the population is still rural and a large number weren’t even registered.
Additionally, it is the rural heartland that is war-ridden, where the Taliban not only have a strong presence but have also evolved their own system of governance. Southern Afghanistan continues to be the prime target of the US drone attacks, night raids and fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan National Army. The war has almost destroyed the agricultural economy, the primary source of employment in the rural heartland.
Despite billions of dollars having been allocated for agricultural development projects, the number of people living below the poverty line is above 36 percent, which puts Afghanistan among the poorest states in the region. Some 600,000 people are still internally displaced, the majority forced to live in extremely deteriorated conditions. According to a 2012 UN report, 75 percent of the entire population have been forced from their homes.
Thus it is not surprising to note low voter turnout in those areas. But the reason for this low response isn’t merely because the Taliban barred people from voting. They also didn’t vote because they genuinely support the Taliban, or they knew the futility of this exercise, especially when civil war looms large.
None of these possibilities can be rejected given the dismal experience Afghanistan has had in previous elections, and given that the Taliban have virtual control over most of rural Afghanistan, except in the north. An official of the Election Commission confirmed to Asia Sentinel that that in one part of Wardak, an area where the Taliban are strong, only eight of 35 polling centers functioned on Election Day.
It would, as such, not be wrong to say that the picture presented through the international media was highly selective. Some reports indicate Afghan journalists, prior to the elections, decided collectively to avoid negative reporting to avoid undermining the process.
For example, although voter turnout was higher than in 2009, the election was skewed in terms of gender. Although women made up 1.38 million of the newly registered voters, only about 35 percent actually cast votes, destroying the myth of the “election strides” by Afghan women.
It is the same with reporting on violence and killing in the wake of the election campaign and on Election Day. Two journalists were attacked in the town of Khost, near the Pakistan border, resulting in the death of Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus and serious wounds to another. A few days before the election, five agents of the election commission were also killed. The ‘independent’ Election Commission and Interior Ministry were attacked by suicide bombers.
These and other such incidents may look insignificant in terms of the number of people killed. However, they gain much significance when seen as a prologue to the new front and the “final front” the Taliban are most likely to open soon.
Nor was the election free and fair. The Election Commission received 870 allegations of vote fraud classified as serious enough to affect the outcome negatively, casting serious doubts on the credibility of the entire process. Other reports said polling centers in more than half of the host villages in Andar district for instance either were closed or had little to no activity on election day, even though they submitted thousands of votes.
That fraud was widely practiced and that even force was used to push people to cast votes becomes evident when we closely look at some of the post-election developments. On April 24, it was reported that the former warlord Abdurrashid Dostum is most likely to capture the seat of vice president. The return of a strongman known for brutal and reckless behavior would be a troubling development for the majority of the people of Afghanistan, especially for the Pashtun who were the primary targets of Dostum’s use of force and violence in his fight against the Taliban in the wake of the US attack on Afghanistan back in 2001.
Afghans have already started to express fear that if successful Dostum would re-establish his old position by re-creating a private militia and resorting to ruthless violence against rival ethnic groups and politicians alike. Dostum’s return would further push the Taliban into action because of the historical rivalry between them.
Already the election has taken on an overwhelmingly ethnic dimension, primarily between the Pashtun and Tajiks. With the Taliban trying to gather their forces from across the border, the threat of civil war has increased manifold.
Hence the critical question: Of what use would this election be if war eventually breaks out? Elections can never produce peace unless preceded by a serious and sustained dialogue. Without accommodating different ethnic, militant and political factions’ interests, peace will be very hard, near to impossible, to come by.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic who writes on Afghan matters.