Afghanistan: Winter of troubles before April spring

Published: December 23, 2013 - 14:23 Updated: February 3, 2014 - 00:40

The world will be looking at Afghanistan when it goes for elections in April 2014, which if they do take place, will be in the face of insurmountable odds

Srinivas Rao Sohoni Pune


April 5, 2014, is a Saturday, and billed to be a date of particular significance in Afghanistan—having been notified as Election Day for the Presidential elections, as well as for elections to 34 provincial councils.

The electronic, print and social media in Afghanistan are replete with election-related news, comments, and analyzes although D-day is still a few months away. That the democratic process has claimed the interest and participation of the Afghan people reflects their ingrained understanding of political processes. This bodes well for the future of a developing country anxious for peace and progress, having been ravaged and ruined by war and insurgency for decades
on end.

Already, 16 candidates have filed their nominations for the presidential elections and after preliminary scrutiny, 10 remain in the fray pending further verification of documents.

Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic composition, with no single ethnicity being in the majority overall, has occasioned the phenomenon that all tickets–of presidential candidates with partners for the two vice-presidential positions–are composites, i.e. every presidential candidate has running mates of other ethnicities. Election rules require each candidate for the presidency to file voluminous documentation in support of his or her candidature, including proof of electoral support from the country’s 34 provinces. These materials undergo verification, and the field could narrow.

Several candidates now on the list for the presidential elections have occupied positions of trust and high responsibility in governance roles under President HamidKarzai, and are known to have filed their nominations with varying degrees of endorsement from presidential quarters.

This shows that, irrespective of the Constitutional limit of a maximum of two terms as president, the incumbent has gained influence in domestic politics. A student of political science, Karzai has averred he will strive to foster a peaceful and orderly transfer of power to a duly elected successor.

The elections are crucially important to Afghanistan’s emergence as a stable and democratic nation-state, one equipped peacefully to compose internal differences and manage national issues with maturity
and balance.

That the democratic process has claimed the interest and participation of the Afghan people reflects their ingrained understanding of political processes

There is, however, a range of diverse and interconnected challenges to the due process of elections in Afghanistan. Paucity of funds is a constraint of serious nature; so is shortage of trained human resources for election management positions; and shortage of equipment, vehicles, fuel, spares and other needs pertaining to election logistics.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission is straining hard to cope with
the challenges.

A number of initiatives are underway–from promoting election awareness and awareness of voter rights and duties, to women’s participation in the democratic processes, recruitment and training of election staff, selection of sites for and setting up of polling stations, election materials management, complaints redressal and disposal systems, procedures for preventing election malpractices, and so on.

The officials of the IEC candidly recognize the deficiencies they have to make up. There is evident sincerity of attitude and an approach to manage as best as possible under difficult conditions. Besides, Afghanistan’s harsh winter conditions make elections all the more difficult. Already, the Central Highlands and hilly regions have received the first snowfall. The next five winter months will witness bitter cold weather, blizzards, avalanches, snowbound roads and communications blockages and paralysis.


But it’s the Pakistan-based security threat that remains overall the most serious challenge to the elections in Afghanistan. The self-styled, so-called ‘Emir ul-Mominun’ (Leader of the Faithful), Mullah Omar, is purported to have issued a call to the Afghan people to boycott the elections. Orchestrated from the Pakistan side of the Durand Line, insurgent activity, terrorism and sabotage have intensified. This has implications for the whole range of election organization and management–from the location of the polling stations to the eventual counting of ballots and declaration of results.

Armed insurgent activity threatens to inhibit and disrupt public participation in the electoral process, especially in the predominantly Pashtun provinces of southern and eastern Afghanistan bordering the Durand Line. Broad-based participation matters enormously in the overall credibility and acceptability of whatever is the electoral outcome. If the Pashtuns are prevented en masse from voting or made disinclined to vote, this will undermine the election result and lead to a deepening and widening of ethnic and regional fault-lines as well as increase inherent political tensions across Afghanistan.

Terrorism and armed insurgency in Afghanistan are chiefly sourced from Pakistan, sponsored by Pakistan’s military leadership, and supported by the narcotics trade and funds from the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. The same entities channel radical, fascist, political Islam, and aim to destroy Afghanistan’s time-honoured traditional Islamic culture and subjugate population clusters to their totalitarian and moribund ideology.

The targeting of Afghanistan by radical, fascist, political Islam conjoined with terrorism, armed insurgency, and the narcotics trade, menaces not just the security of Afghanistan but the general security environment of all of Central and South Asia – with immediate ramifications impacting nations across the entire land mass from Western Europe to China, and from Russia to India.

Army GHQs, Rawalpindi, persists as the instigator and facilitator of this insidious and extremely dangerous trend. Specialized and focused terrorist activity and armed insurgency directed from Pakistan will pose acute problems in Afghan election organization; the more so as adverse weather conditions are imminent.

If a postponement of Election Day is compelled, Afghanistan would be forced into a seriously conflicted and volatile internal political situation – more susceptible to interference and manipulation from Pakistan. Disrupting the election process and contriving to secure a postponement of the Election Day from April 5, 2014, is increasingly being revealed as a key interim objective of Pakistan military strategists. The alternative revised date for Election Day can only be after the month of Ramadan.

Officials candidly recognize the deficiencies they have to make up for. There is evident sincerity of attitude and approach to manage as best as possible 

In 2014, Ramadan would commence on or about the June 28 and end on or about July 27. By August 2014, International Security Assistance force levels would stand significantly depleted, and therefore the aggregate security cover in Afghanistan would be more thinly spread and porous vis-a-vis security threats. Conversely, this would amplify Pakistan’s capacity to manipulate Afghanistan’s internal politics. It may be anticipated that at the time the Pakistan-based sponsors of terrorism and insurgency in Afghanistan will seize the moment to intensify actions undermining security in Afghanistan.

Key individuals in the Afghan leadership may be targeted for assassination; the morale and efficiency of the Afghan security forces will be sought to be suborned; green on blue attacks precipitated; radical political Islam propaganda heightened; sectarian attacks launched; diversionary and decoy negotiation exercises initiated; various incidents instigated in Kabul, as well as in Kunar, Khost, LoyaPaktia and Nangahar, Kandahar, Helmand, Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh, Faryab and Herat to keep these areas unstable and disturbed.

Pakistan’s objective would be to foment an incendiary atmosphere of breakdown of state institutions, anarchy and chaos, and thus prepare conditions enabling a Pakistan-sourced intervention.

It is precisely this scenario, the menace posed by Pakistan, which Afghan leadership circles apprehend and look to friends in the international community to help thwart. President Karzai’s visits to India, China, Turkey, the UK, and the several bilateral strategic agreements signed had this potential predicament in focus; likewise, the repeated overtures to Pakistan and the regimes in Riyadh and the Gulf.

Hopes subsist in Afghan governance circles that a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the US and Afghanistan would be signed in time to enable maintenance of a meaningful US military presence on the ground in key locations and a blanket security guarantee for protection of the Afghan State from destabilization. But administrative and political management may scarcely hinge on mere hope.

From the Afghan viewpoint, it is necessary to have well-defined and clear enunciation by the US of the benefits that would flow to Afghanistan from the BSA. Would the BSA make for proactive protection of the Afghan State by the US from the insidious threat posed with impunity by Pakistan this last decade and more?

Without the BSA and firm long-term US military commitment to Afghanistan’s security and well-being, there is no question that a full withdrawal of US-led NATO forces would leave the field wide open and vulnerable to initiatives by Pakistan’s strategists and their proxies.

Even assuming the BSA is signed and the US military umbrella is extended over Afghanistan, the task of maintaining security at ground level clearly requires a quantitative and qualitative enhancement in forces deployed to cope with the additional burden of ensuring the integrity of the election process.

Much to the chagrin and dismay of several senior US military leaders and security and foreign policy experts, US policy periodically exhibits appeasement of Pakistan, and avoids bearing down on the mainsprings of terrorism forged and operationalized from Pakistan. It is known that the Pakistan Army leadership is complicit in the matter of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, so these cannot be counted as exceptions to the US policy of
appeasing Pakistan.

So long as there is no material change in this approach, the Afghan State will remain insecure and vulnerable to Pakistan-based insurgency and terrorism; and in consequence, the Afghan election process will remain an aspiration in jeopardy. As a further direct consequence, destabilization of Afghanistan and location there of radical fascist political Islamists and terror groups under Pakistani auspices, would pose a lethal threat to regional, transcontinental and global security.

Pakistan will have to be viewed by the world as bearing the primary responsibility in the event that the Afghan elections have to be postponed owing to conditions of insecurity created by forces of terrorism and armed insurgency amidst aggravated
weather conditions.

There is scope for prognosis that such a complex and explosive situation, when reached, would be addressed by the Afghan political class by resorting to the traditional and time-honoured Afghan approach for handling of major national crises and issues–the convening of Jirgas or conclaves of elders for mutual consultation–for in-depth consideration and evolution of a consensus.

What outcome the Jirgas could yield need not be speculated upon, but it is not inconceivable that the incumbent president may be persuaded to stay in interim charge to provide continuity and stability during the period of transition. Far from languishing as a lame duck president, President Karzai may be called to perform a historic, unifying and stabilizing role at that crucial juncture. This could be his finest hour in service of the long-suffering but incredibly brave people of Afghanistan.

Whether events up ahead in Afghanistan transpose into further tragedy, or whether they have a happy outcome, will be of direct consequence for the whole world. And to India, of course. 


- NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan will conclude at the end of 2014, marking the end of the largest, most expensive, and most politically contentious mission in the alliance’s history.

- No country has more to lose than Pakistan from the coming departure of international forces. Once welcomed by Pakistan, Taliban may now result in empowering Pakistan’s own militant extremists.

- Building confidence between the two countries could also perhaps permanently defuse their long-standing dispute over the Durand Line that separates them. New life could be breathed into plans to construct a gas pipeline from the fields in Turkmenistan.

- Bilateral Security Arrangement, if signed between the US and Afghanistan, will breathe a new sense of security. If the deal falters, it could lead to chaos. 

- India is ostensibly supportive of US policy, and has formally signed on to an Afghan-led peace process. But Indian officials and strategists scarcely disguise their discomfort towards what they see as undue American haste in withdrawing troops, an over-eagerness to accommodate the Taliban as part of political reconciliation, and a continued indulgence of Pakistan despite its support for Afghan insurgents.

The world will be looking at Afghanistan when it goes for elections in April 2014, which if they do take place, will be in the face of insurmountable odds
Srinivas Rao Sohoni Pune

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