Afghans went to the polls on September 28 to vote in their country’s fourth presidential election since 2001. The election, which had been delayed twice already, may not have happened at all. The U.S. and Taliban negotiators were expecting to sign a peace deal in early September which could have led to the formation of a transitional government. But President Trump abruptly cancelled peace talks in early September, revealing that he had even invited the Taliban to Camp David to sign a deal that appeared to be imminent.
His pretext for nixing the talks was an attack that killed one American soldier. But, in all likelihood, the real reason for his change of mind was the substance of the deal itself. Chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad had initially insisted that the Taliban talk directly with the Afghan government. But that demand was reportedly watered down to get a deal through in time, and the Taliban were now only expected to engage in intra-Afghan dialogue with various political factions, of which the government was one.
Moreover, plans for a nationwide ceasefire were apparently modified to a ceasefire between U.S. and Taliban forces only, with discussion of a broader ceasefire deferred to the later intra-Afghan talks. The supposed peace deal would, in fact, not create peace at all, critics charged. It would just lead to the withdrawal of American forces, undermining the Afghan government and making a Taliban victory more likely. The Taliban, far from wanting peace and reconciliation, were just using the talks to expel foreign forces and expedite their conquest of Kabul.
It is possible that Trump will restart the peace process. His cancellation of talks is likely a negotiating tactic, akin to his temporary withdrawal from a planned summit with North Korea’s Kim in 2018. However, he is unlikely to pressure the Taliban, who are going from strength to strength on the battlefield and has the upper hand. And a presidential election could destabilise the country further, making it even harder to resuscitate peace talks.
Elections in Afghanistan carry serious risks. The various polls the country has held since 2001 have usually been tainted by fraud. The result of the last presidential election, in 2014, was disputed, leading to a major political crisis alleviated only by the U.S., which stepped in to broker a unity government between the rival candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.
Those two men are, once again, the frontrunners this year, risking a repeat of 2014. And, with Trump eager to leave Afghanistan and a diminished U.S. troop presence, America’s willingness and ability to manage any post-election crisis is greatly attenuated. The risk of instability is severe at a time when the Taliban are growing in strength and the government is losing its grip on power. A chaotic election could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Ghani argues that an election is needed to return a legitimate government. But it is optimistic, even delusional, to think that legitimacy will be the outcome of this poll. While results are not expected for some weeks, preliminary signs are not encouraging. Turnout appears to have been staggeringly low – even lower than expected – with as few as 20% of registered voters going to the polls. Some have clearly been deterred by the risk of Taliban violence on election day, others have lost faith in the current political system.
There were admittedly some positive developments. While the Taliban conducted many attacks – far more than in the October parliamentary election – most were small-scale and caused fewer casualties, probably thanks to the additional troops deployed to protect polling stations. Another plus was the improved operation of the biometric voting systems used to process voters, which worked better than they did during the chaotic parliamentary election last year.
However, there have already been allegations of fraud, and it has been noted that Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission released flawed and inconsistent figures prior to the election, a recipe for political manipulation. Both of the main candidates have already claimed victory, an ominous sign.
Democratization has largely failed in Afghanistan. Voters continue to vote along ethno-linguistic, not national, lines. The 2014 election saw massive fraud, according to a recent study, and it is likely that Ashraf Ghani actually lost, despite becoming president. The National Unity Government has failed to implement the reforms required by its founding agreement. For example, there was supposed to be a Loya Jirga to formalise the position of Chief Executive Officer held by Dr. Abdullah. It never happened, and Abdullah was increasingly sidelined during Ghani’s tenure. The parliament’s mandate expired in 2015, but parliamentary elections were repeatedly delayed. When they were eventually held in October 2018, the process was a fiasco. The results took several months to finalise, and even then remained incomplete.
To be fair, Ghani has made progress in some areas. Civilian casualties caused by Afghan security forces have fallen on his watch, thanks to improvements in targeting procedures. This is all the more impressive because the U.S., which is supposed to set a good example, has intensified its air war against the Taliban and Islamic State and caused far more casualties in the process. Torture has also declined, although it still remains disturbingly high. Reducing brutality at all is an accomplishment, given Afghanistan’s parlous human rights record and desperately weak institutions.
Efforts have also been made to improve Afghanistan’s landlocked economy through connectivity initiatives, such as the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, or through energy projects like the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India pipeline. Ghani also agreed with India and Iran to trade through the port of Chabahar, and he has signed Afghanistan up to China’s Belt and Road initiative. These projects have a long way to go, but Ghani has at least moved things in the right direction.
This could all unravel now that peace talks have collapsed and a post-election crisis looms.
Rupert Stone is an independent journalist based in Germany