New Afghan president must deal with an unpredictable neighbour.
By all accounts, the much-awaited presidential election in Afghanistan was a success, at least in terms of the turnout and voting process. As we wait for official results to see whether a run-off is necessary, in the event that no single candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the votes, it is worth considering the looming question — Afghanistan’s post-election prospects. A pivotal actor in Afghanistan’s fortunes is not the Afghan voter, Taliban fighter, former warlord or even the new president. It is Afghanistan’s next-door neighbour Pakistan, which can only be characterised as a “wild card”.
It is hard to describe Pakistan as anything else when, even after 13 years of waging war together in Afghanistan, US officials and analysts on South Asia are not able to assess the Pakistan government’s “real” intentions towards Kabul after American withdrawal. Instead, they tend to offer two very divergent interpretations, an optimistic scenario and a pessimistic one, thus leaving this critical question unanswered.
Although the takers for an optimistic scenario are decreasing, it is perhaps understandable from a diplomatic viewpoint that a dire prediction is not a desirable policy option for the US: it would highlight just how little has been achieved even as it departs, and just how little can be done even if it wanted to change the equation with Pakistan.
So it should come as no surprise that all three leading presidential candidates — Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul — have in the past accused Pakistan of helping Afghan insurgents to further Islamabad’s own interests. For example, when Burhanuddin Rabbani, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and former president, was assassinated in 2011, Ghani publicly said Pakistan had probably played a role. He went on to say “the assassination of President Rabbani has gelled the nation together against interference. And one or two more actions could put us in an irreversible course [towards] conflict.” Indeed, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun who gained power, with strong personal ties to Pakistan, has over time become one of Islamabad’s biggest critics.
Post elections, no matter what the verdict, Pakistan’s opportunities in Afghanistan are likely to rise. Islamabad would no doubt like to regain its dominant pre-2001 position, and conditions seem to be favourable for such an outcome. A receding American presence, an inevitable reduction in funds from economically hard-pressed Western countries, the unfinished nature of the war, and the lack of any regional understanding regarding Afghanistan’s stability, will leave wide openings for Pakistan’s influence. Historically, the government in Kabul has been only as powerful as the level of resources it has had in hand to play patronage politics.
Afghanistan’s provinces have always been too strong, and regional leaders too independent, for the government to exert real control from the centre. Conversely, there have been no secession movements to speak of in Afghanistan — the prize for regional satraps has been influence in Kabul.
This should be a disquieting thought for the next president, especially since the two apparent frontrunners are both technocrats without a large and powerful base. Abdullah, a doctor by training, has held key posts under Karzai, and before that, was active in the Northern Alliance led by Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Ghani, a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University, boasts an impressive set of credentials. To wield power once in office, the new leader will have to make a dizzying number of deals — including with distasteful power-brokers who can otherwise pose serious governance challenges.
Entire swathes of Afghanistan in the turbulent south, east and southeast bordering Pakistan remain outside the control of Kabul and up for grabs. There are continuing attacks by armed groups, especially the Taliban and Haqqani networks, with sanctuaries across the border. The border is highly porous, stretching over 2,500 kilometres, and under the circumstances, presidential deal-making with internal detractors is not going to be sufficient.
The new regime will inherit the same unsettled political and security situation that Karzai has been unsuccessfully overseeing. Last year was among the most violent in Afghanistan since 2001. The month leading up to the election saw a jump in attacks, especially against election officials and facilities. After an attack on the heavily guarded Serena hotel in Kabul (where most international election observers were staying), the Afghan National Security Council reportedly held “foreign intelligence services” — a thinly veiled reference to Pakistan’s security agencies — responsible.
Pakistan, in turn, declared it would fortify and seal the border with Afghanistan during the elections, which Islamabad says it followed through on. This might partly explain why elections were not marred by major terror attacks. The question is whether Pakistan will take the necessary measures to ensure Afghanistan’s stability once the international spotlight is turned off. On this, Pakistan remains a wild card.