If there is anything my recent trip to Afghanistan with NATO’s Transatlantic Opinion Leaders to Afghanistan tour (TOLA) has shown is that the upcoming presidential elections in April 2014 do not really matter.
The elections will not trigger political transition and will not influence the
international community’s relationship with Afghanistan. Not the Afghan voters,
but the international community will determine the future of stability and
democracy in the country. There are three important reasons for why the upcoming
presidential elections will not be a decisive moment or a crucial test for the
nascent democracy of a country in transition.
First, both the process and outcome of the presidential elections
will not change the political situation in Afghanistan in the short term. There
will be no huge disruption of the election process and there will be no real
break with current politics. While the role of former warlords may be
decreasing, there is still a political scene that is dominated by former
mujahedeen, some of whom are linked to the extreme violence and human right
violations of the past. Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Abdul Rashid Dostum are the
While president Karzai steps down, the ‘Karzai era’ has therefore clearly
not come to an end yet, despite the fact that most Afghans have never
experienced life under Soviet occupation, during the civil war or under the
Taliban regime. In 2015 there will be more than 13 million young Afghans (more
than a third of the population) that will have been born after 9/11. The young
generation of Afghanistan will ultimately change the political landscape in
Afghanistan, but not yet in 2014, perhaps only in 2019 or 2024. A Facebook
generation has already come to the fore, but so far they cannot put their stamp
on Afghan politics.
Second, the presidential elections will not change security and
stability in the country. All candidates will make sure the elections will
result in a more or less stable political settlement. Not only because many of
them want the current local power arrangements to remain in place, but
especially because they have one political agenda in common: keeping the
political situation stable enough to keep foreign aid and assistance coming in.
Despite the growing political rhetoric against the West that president Karzai
has been displaying over the past years, all candidates know they need the West,
to pay for the salaries of the newly trained Afghan National Security Forces
(ANSF) but especially to keep the aid economy going from which all take their
share, whether legally or illegally.
Without continued foreign assistance to pay for the army and police, the
state will collapse and there will be no winners. All presidential candidates
understand this reality and know the Afghan people are increasingly discontented
with the violence and local power struggles that are still ubiquitous in the
country. Shaping and reshaping the political coalitions may require a lot of
financial and political bargaining between candidates before and after the
elections, but that will all lead towards a stable outcome, not towards
fragmentation of Afghanistan. To win the elections, Pashtun candidates know that
they will also have to accommodate Tajik voters. Similarly, Abdullah Abdullah,
the only alternative for a Pashtun ticket, knows he has to win over part of the
Pashtun population in the south and east of the country. In this way, all
tickets tend to become similar in the elections.
Third, as the elections do not completely coincide with the end of
the current International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, they will
not really influence the military campaign. The Taliban will not use it as a
decisive point in time to change their strategy. As in 2009, they will try to
disrupt the election process and they will try to kill some high-profile
targets, ideally a presidential candidate. But they know they cannot stop the
elections or win militarily, and they know they will never again be able to rule
the entire country.
The past fighting season has shown that despite an increase in violence and
casualties of the ANSF, the Taliban has had no decisive victories and has not
reached its strategic objectives beyond (international) media attention. Faced
with this powerlessness, the different Taliban groups will wait until 2015
before they make the next substantial move. They will at least test the real
strength of the ANSF once most of the foreign troops are out of the country
during the Spring/Summer fighting season of 2015. Why commit to serious peace
negotiations before your primary opponent is about to lose most of its direct
military support from the West?
The presidential elections will not give Afghanistan a sovereign leader
that will turn his back on the West. Afghanistan will remain an aid-dependent
country and the next president will know the importance of continuity of the
foreign aid relationships. Afghanistan currently only raises about 10 percent (2
billion USD) of GDP domestically. We should therefore not worry about the
elections taking place in Afghanistan. The most important decisions are not
taken in Afghanistan on April 5, 2014 as the Afghans will still not determine
their own future.
Instead, the most important decisions are taken in the political capitals
of the NATO member states and partner countries. In coming months, especially
after president Karzai has signed a Bilateral Security Agreement with
Afghanistan, the parliaments of these countries will ultimately decide the
future of security and stability in Afghanistan. If they decide to support the
new NATO mission to train, advice and assist the Afghan security forces with
enough resources, they can make sure there is enough funding to continue the
important training and capacity building efforts that are really changing the
face of Afghan politics, one step at a time.
Jorrit Kamminga is Senior Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of
International Relations Clingendael. This article was made possible with support
from NATO’s Public Diplomacy Section during the Tour of Transatlantic Opinion
Leaders to Afghanistan (TOLA).