Déjà Vu in Afghanistan?

Presidential Elections and Long-Term Security

Tomorrow, the Afghan people will go to the polls to elect a new president. Since President Karzai already served two terms, he is constitutionally barred from taking part in these elections. This allows for a new leader and a future path for Afghanistan, a country plagued by corruption, security challenges, and weak governance for many years.

Three candidates have emerged as favorites for the Presidential elections:Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister and close confidant of Karzai; Abdullah Abdullah, leader of the largest opposition party and one of Karzai’s main rivals; andAshraf Ghani, a development expert and a former finance minister under the Karzai administration.

While many are speculating who will win the elections, one thing is certain: long-term security and stability will be one of the new president’s main challenges. The direction that he decides to take will be crucial for the future of Afghanistan and the region as a whole.

One of the first tasks of the new leader will be to decide on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the US and Afghanistan. This agreement would allow for a small contingent of US troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to provide assistance and training to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Karzai refused to sign this agreement despite the approval of the Loya Jirga (gathering of Afghan elders) that he called for in November 2013. He argued that the future president should make this decision, because this individual will bear the consequences.

As long as the agreement is not signed, the US will continue to plan for the complete pull-out of all US troops (what is now known as ‘the zero option’), both training and combat in nature, from Afghanistan by the end of this year. This could have detrimental consequences for the security situation in Afghanistan, as the ANSF are still widely internationally perceived as well as by leading Afghan figures as depending significantly on outside assistance.

Since December 2001, the international community has been providing assistance to the ANSF through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This force is tasked to ‘support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population’. As it now stands, ISAF will withdraw from Afghanistan by December 2014, so all eyes are on the ANSF. Will the Afghan national forces be ready to assume full responsibility for the security of Afghanistan? Many have their doubts.

In its report entitled ‘Independent Assessment of the Afghan National Security Forces’, the Center for Naval Analyses for example concluded ‘that the security environment in Afghanistan will become more challenging after the draw-down of international forces in 2014; that the Taliban insurgency will become a greater threat to stability than now; and that a small group of al Qaeda members will remain active in remote valleys of northeastern Afghanistan.’

The Centre for Security Governance concluded in its report ‘The Afghan National Security Forces Beyond 2014: Will They Be Ready?’ that the ANSF still needs international assistance to maintain order after 2014 ‘taking into account the problems that the ANSF still faces – such as endemic corruption and high attrition rates, the questionable financial sustainability of the ANSF’. This need for international assistance, in particular financial support, is also recognized by senior Afghan leaders.

Leaving aside Karzai’s criticism that continued foreign presence is a way of the ‘West’ to control (parts of) the territory of Afghanistan, it seems that such presence will indeed be necessary to maintain a minimum level of stability and security. Furthermore, since many of the presidential candidates have indicated that they would sign the BSA upon their appointment, a post-2014 mission is likely. However, such a mission, which will only have a ‘small footprint’ at best, still does not guarantee security. After more than eleven years the involvement of the well-equipped and trained international forces could not even avoid the progression of insurgency, so how can the ANSF expect to achieve this?

Returning to the presidential candidates, in order to win votes in the elections, some have formed dubious alliances along ethnic lines with warlords who have morally questionable pasts. For example General Abdul Rashid Dostum (ethnic Uzbek), one of the most prominent warlords of Afghanistan, is running for vice-president alongside Ashraf Ghani (ethnic Pashtun). Their involvement in the Afghan political arena indicates that not much has changed. Impunity remains the rule. Accountability, essential for sustainable peace and democracy, is still far from reality.

Several warlords, for instance, were accused of ‘orchestrating massacres, torture, mass rape and other war crimes’ in a report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights but never brought to justice. One may also wonder whether any of the candidates will be perceived as legitimate by certain groups of the population who may have been victimized in the past by the newly elected leaders.

For now, signing the BSA and allowing US troops to assist and train the ANSF will be an appropriate ‘first’ step towards a secure Afghanistan in the long run where human rights are respected and wrongdoers held accountable. Moreover, it can help to create the conditions for a political dialogue towards a negotiated settlement to take root.

Tomorrow’s elections will be the first and most crucial hurdle for Afghanistan to overcome as it will set the stage for the country’s future. Free, fair and credible elections are essential to secure a peaceful political transition, to sustain international support, and to keep Afghanistan from slipping back into a civil war. This year’s election, which marks the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan, will hopefully serve as a positive precedent for the country’s future.

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