People & Politics

Ballots, bullets, bribes and warlords

By Suchitra Vijayan

31 March 2014

The cast and characters of the 2014 Afghan elections.
Afghanistan Holds Presidential and Provincial Council Elections

Flickr/ United Nations Photo. 2009 Afghan elections.

With Afghanistan’s Presidential election around the corner, of the 14 original candidates, only nine remain. More are likely to withdraw in the coming days. Voting on 5 April is not likely to produce a clear winner, and the chances of a runoff between the top two aspirants is high. The following teams are the foremost contenders, given their cash resources, loyalty and patronage networks, the size of the constituency in which they are competing, and the percentage of votes each candidate with their running-mate is predicted to garner. First, Abdullah Abdullah with Mohammad Khan and Mohammad Mohaqiq; second, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai with Abdul Rashid Dostum and Sarwar Danish; and third, Zalmai Rassoul with Ahmed Zia Massoud and Habiba Sarobi. The candidacy of Ashraf Ghani in particular presents an interesting vantage-point from which to analyse the actors and possible outcomes of the elections.

Following the ousting of the Taliban in late 2001, Ashraf Ghani returned to Afghanistan to serve as the Special Adviser to Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to Afghanistan. In that capacity, Ghani worked on the negotiation and implementation of the Bonn Agreement. He also served as Afghanistan’s Finance Minister from 2002 to 2004, the duration of the Transitional Administration. Ghani is widely credited as the architect of some of the most extensive and difficult reforms of the period. For instance, herefused to fund the army until they were able to provide a genuine roster of soldiers, suspecting that the figures were inflated to claim extra money. This put him squarely against the corruption rampant within the transitional government, and set the stage for his subsequent frustrated resignation at the end of 2004, over the Karzai Presidency’s unwillingness to take on corrupt power brokers.

Ghani was educated at Columbia University, has been Chancellor of Kabul University, and worked at the World Bank for nearly a decade. He is Afghanistan’s western-educated, TED-talk savvy technocrat, and has long been popular among educated urban Afghans. His corruption-free image is also seen as a huge appeal. Ghani is considered a forward-looking intellectual who can help Afghanistan transition to stable democracy. He is a Pashtun from Logar; however, some sources question his family’s affiliation to the Ahmadzai tribe.

During the 2009 elections, The New York Times declared Ghani “the most educated and Westernized of Afghanistan’s candidates”. Yet in those elections Ghani received three percent of the vote. Following his defeat, Ghani served as the head of the Security Transition Commission, during which he strategically cultivated relationships by travelling to every province in Afghanistan, including Nooristan (a Taliban stronghold and a province difficult to reach due to poor road access). In 2009 he was little-known outside major cities; in 2014 he is a prominent candidate, even in remote areas. From attracting predominantly young voters confined to urban centres like Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif in 2009, Ghani has now managed to create a national platform to include traditional networks in other provinces.   

In a 2009 New Yorker profile, Ghani was referred to as “the technocratic alternative to the politics of warlordism and corruption”. In an interview with Australia’s ABC radio, Ghani himself talked about an “Afghanistan that does not wish to have warlords.” Yet for the upcoming elections he surprised many of his supporters by choosing General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Uzbek warlord, as one of his running mates. Many Kabul observers state that Ghani, while still holding on to many of his moral and political positions, is now more tempered and has the disposition to engage with tribal elders, leaders and power brokers, and local strongmen to create consensus and provide concessions. Most recent polls place Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, his main rival for the Presidency, neck-and-neck.

Abdul Rashid Dostum has a colorful past, having controlled his own private militia. His political organisation, Junbish-e Milli-yi Islami-yi Afghanistan (Junbish), is considered a front to channel money into maintaining his army. With extensive patronage networks in Afghanistan and abroad, Dostum has remained an important actor in the political landscape of Afghanistan. It is alleged that Turkey provided 10 million dollars for Dostum’s organisation Junbish, and has continued to fund Dostum over the years. In November 2001 Dostum joined forces with the American military and fought alongside the Northern Alliance. During the course of the invasion and afterwards, Dostum was well remunerated for his services. With the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, empowered and cash-rich with American and Turkish money that ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per month, he quickly consolidated his position as a dominant military leader in the region. While his influence – which has been compared to Atta Muhammad Nur, warlord-turned-bureaucrat and Governor of Balkh Province – has waned since 2001, Dostum still remains a forceful presence, with his ability to mobilise his supporters (with whom he has built ties over the last two decades) across ethnic lines.

Dostum’s importance can be gleaned from the fact that in August 2009, Karzai allowed him to return after several months in exile in Turkey. Dostum had been expelled for the kidnapping of Akbar Bey: Bey had previously worked with Dostum and later defected to create his own party, poaching members from Junbish. Despite strong objection from the US, Karzai brought Dostum back in time for the 2009 elections, allowing Dostum to bring tens of thousands of Uzbek votes for Karzai.

The Uzbeks remain fiercely loyal to Dostum: to them he is milli kahraman (a national hero), their sole protector against the Taliban and the Pashtun-dominated centre. He has offered a voice to non-Pashtun minorities, especially Uzbeks and Turkmen, and is adept at tapping into ethno- national sentiments to rally his people. His ability to deliver public services has also been an important factor in his political career. The Uzbek and Turkmen population will vote as a bloc for the candidate endorsed by Dostum. He, as the Presidential candidate’s running mate, brings with him the entire Uzbek and Turkmen bloc, which makes up at least ten percent of the vote. While the two running mates of the Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul camps largely represent Afghanistan’s major ethnic groups, Ghani’s camp does not have a Tajik running-mate. Tajiks form the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and recent history indicates that no victory will materialise unless the country’s two major ethnic groups, Pashtun and Tajik, come together and strike a deal.

Rumours have circulated that Ghani would want to recruit an elite Tajik to address this gap, but this seems unlikely at this point. With Atta Nur’s support, Abdullah’s camp has unlimited cash resources, and Zalmai Rassoul is likely to receive support from Karzai’s office and network. Ghani lacks both. Dostum, though an unlikely ally, as well as ethnic votes may bring with him the cash resources that Ghani lacks. Beyond the elections, Dostum remains an indispensable political and military actor, to counter growing Taliban influence in the increasingly unstable Uzbek regions of Afghanistan. In the long term, however, Dostum’s influence will limit the country’s democratisation process, shift future ministerial positions to his cronies, and further entrench ethnic bloc-voting. Dostum may be a liability to Ghani with his record as a human rights violator, alleged perpetrator of war crimes, and his infamous unpredictability. Real political acumen for the presidential successor should include short-term co-optation of problematic but imperative figures like Dostum, along with a long-term strategy to neutralise their hold on the country. Karzai, while adept in this short term strategy, has regularly failed to counterbalance the long-term effect of his warlord conclave.

Karzai’s hand
President Karzai is uniquely influential because he controls the machinery of the state. One only needs to look at the 2009 election to see how he orchestrated electoral success through shrewd political appointments and election fraud at the provincial and district levels. Elections monitor Grant Kippen called the 2009 election, presided and executed by Karzai, “the most widespread, pervasive, and egregious campaign of fraud” he had witnessed. The Attorney General’s Office currently plays the role of the ECC, and Attorney General Aloko is said to  “take telephone orders from Karzai”, making the election commission’s independence highly questionable.

With very little time remaining before the election, rumours abound in Kabul that Karzai has strategically choreographed the composition of most candidates’ tickets. Rumours circulate that Karzai fielded Dostum to Ghani’s camp and placed Mohammad Khan on Abdullah’s ticket. When one takes stock of the facts, it becomes clear that Karzai has tried, and to a large extent succeeded, in diversifying his interests and co-opting to various degrees all possible presidential successors. Rassoul, if successful, would be a direct continuation of Karzai’s regime. It is highly unlikely that Karzai would co-opt Abdullah for a number of reasons, including their long political and personal rivalry, ideological disagreements and public spats. He could possibly co-opt Ghani, but realises that unlike Rassoul, Ghani would be too autonomous a president for Karzai’s liking.

Rassoul served as Karzai’s national security advisor for over seven years. Their personal relationship dates to their time together in Pakistan during the Taliban regime. Both Karzai and Rassoul worked for the government of Mohammad Zaher Shah, the Former King of Afghanistan, in exile. During this period, Karzai travelled extensively to build international support for the government in exile, and Rassoul frequently accompanied President Karzai on those missions.

The soft-spoken and highly ineffective bureaucrat is widely viewed as Karzai’s choice of successor. Along with Rassoul, many Presidential candidates in the race are seen as Karzai loyalists. Most pro-Karzai presidential candidates have pulled out one after the other in favour of Rassoul. Qayum Karzai and Wardak pulled out in early March, both tacitly supporting Rassoul. Other Pashtun candidates, such as Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and the warlord Gul Agha Sherzai, might follow suit.

President Karzai’s strategy has always been to orchestrate a phased withdrawal of all the major Pashtun candidates in favour of Rassoul. This would ensure a formidable coalition of Pashtun votes against Abdullah (who is mixed Pashtun-Tajik, but is often seen as Tajik) and divide the votes against Ghani. In addition to the phased withdrawal of candidates, Karzai has other levers in place. Raziq, Matiullah, Koka and the seven governors in the south and the south-east have been carefully appointed over the past few years, and will become the extension of Karzai’s state power when the elections commence. While Rassoul might be Karzai’s favoured candidate, his campaign has not gained any momentum. A January 2014 opinion poll showed that only six percent of respondents wanted him to be president. If Rassoul’s campaign does not receive any traction in the next week, it is plausible that Karzai might even throw his backing behind Ghani, a decision likely to be announced in the week leading up to the elections on 5 April. If this happens, the final run-off will most likely include Abdullah and Ghani. To win the final presidential election the candidates will require two key resources – unparalleled cash and the resources of the state, controlled by Karzai.  

Afghanistan’s campaign financing laws are poorly regulated. No caps or spending limits restrict campaign financing for Presidential candidates. Cash-rich individuals like Atta Nur, with immense resources, will have a strong influence on the elections, along with regional and global actors. The US government hasregularly paid large amounts of cash to various political figures – including, but not limited to, Karzai himself. A Wikileaks cable dispatch  from 4 February 2010 states: “Traditionally India, Iran and Pakistan in particular, and Turkey and Russia to a lesser extent, provide direct funding to political parties. Reportedly, the conservative Pashtun parties are funded by Pakistan and the Gulf States, while other conservative Sunni parties from other ethnic groups are also funded by the Gulf States. Iran prefers to fund Shia parties, while Russia and Turkey support the ethnically similar Turkmen and Uzbeks in the Junbish.”

These payments are in direct violationof Article 63 of the Afghan Electoral Law, which prohibits the use of foreign funds for influencing the electoral process. The US and international efforts to promote political integrity and legitimacy have already been severely undermined. Given how easily political loyalties are swayed by cash, we can expect that some individuals may switch sides yet again. Various sources corroborate that many regional and global actors have bankrolled and continue to support multiple candidates, in the hopes of increasing their returns. Violence itself is likely during, and leading up to, polling: not just from the Taliban, but also from Karzai’s government apparatus and opposition forces, as witnessed in 2009.

As the election nears and violence spikes, alliances and allegiances will fracture. The politics of building coalitions between groups will be one of the major activities, and a gordian knot of interpersonal and political histories will complicate matters. It remains to be seen how the chips will fall in the coming days, as Afghanistan goes to the polls.

~This article is a part of Reclaiming Afghanistan: web-exclusive package.

~Suchitra Vijayan is a writer, political analyst and Bar-at-Law. She has worked for the UN War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and co-founded and was the Legal Director of the Resettlement Legal Aid Project, Cairo. She spent two years in Afghanistan researching her graduate thesis on insurgency. 

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