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Afghan Defiance: Elections Move a Nation Forward

The Afghan people defied more than the Taliban in the elections on April 5, they defied the expectations and doubts of the world, including themselves. At a press conference on Saturday night, the Chair of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, estimated a 58 percent voter turnout based on preliminary reports with a 65 percent male and 35 percent female breakdown. Even in volatile provinces such as Kandahar and Balkh and districts like Nawa in Helmand, Afghans flocked to polling stations in troves far higher than expected, especially in contrast to the previous elections. In 2009, voter turnout reports ranged from 20 to 50 percent with high disparity between provinces and the lowest turnouts reported in Pashtun-dominated areas infected by the Taliban, further complicated by allegations- real and perceived- of widespread fraud. Yet even the complaints filed so far to the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), including accusations of ballot box stuffing, ‘ghost’ voting, and meddling by officials, pale in comparison to the previous elections. Strikingly- and positively- a significant portion of those complaints revolve around ballot shortages in as many as 15 of the 34 provinces which resulted in voting time extensions.

Preliminary polling so far projects Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as the front runners and potential candidates of a prospective run-off slotted for May 28; that is, if the final results unveiled on May 15 don’t confirm a victor by majority. Zalmai Rassoul Mohammadzai, oft accused of representing the extant regime given the endorsement by Karzai’s brother in an early drop-out from the running, is forecasted to land a distant third. Despite speculation that Karzai might play a more direct, heavy-handed role in the outcome, Rassoul is unlikely to emerge as a dark horse. Instead, Rassoul’s ticket offers room for political tinkering, especially given the vote split: with Zia Massoud as a running mate, Rassoul likely absorbed some support otherwise allotted to Abdullah, Rassoul’s ties to Zahir Shah and the Afghan royalty possibly appealed to remaining loyalists, and his familial Mohammadzai ties to Kandahar does make him a potential deal-breaker in the south.. Accusations, however, that Karzai is seeking to anchor his influence in a Putin-esque fashion seem largely detached. Much of this stems from the controversy over his refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). Yet the inheritance of this agreement by Karzai’s successor allows the incoming leader ownership over a critical foreign policy aspect which, in the long-run, might produce far more constructive political dividends. Additionally, Karzai’s role in how Rassoul allocates his support base behind the curtain in a run-off projected between Abdullah and Ghani, especially given the sensitivity of Pashtun tribal politics, could dampen widespread backlash against the succeeding regime- a constructive approach Karzai seems invested in, if not pressured to embrace in order to cultivate a more positive legacy alone. The litmus test on whether or not rancor ignites among ethno-tribal fault lines, primarily in the south, lies in the preliminary results pegged for release on April 24.

Moving forward, critical questions and potential trends to monitor remain: Will collective feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization- real or perceived- among Pashtun areas with low-turnout threaten the transition? Will the integrity of the electoral process be preserved amid the influx of complaints and reports of fraud filed with the ECC? Will the candidates coalesce following the final results and coalition-build on a national front? While these answers continue to develop less ominously than proposed, the political stability and security of Afghanistan is fraught by a remaining malicious undercurrent: How will the opposition, specifically the Taliban, strategically respond?

Unfortunately, the high turn-out and relatively low incidents of violence during this election cycle doesn’t nullify the presence of the Taliban, nor the fact that they will remain a thorn in the years to come. Indeed, as a Taliban leader retorted in 2009, “NATO has all the watches, but we have all the time,” but is this statement prophetic? Militants have already launched post-election attacks in an effort to destabilize the counting process and destroy ballots, but beyond the physical security threats, the Taliban also remain an apt force in the contest of dominating the national discourse. Pockets of youth in both rural and urban areas remain vulnerable to the appeal of more conservative ideologues. Pan-Islamic movements such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) have already gained credible traction among university students and more conservative elements in Nangarhar, Badakshan, and Herat. These groups challenge the shaping of Afghanistan’s political topography and the liberal institutions which continue to develop. Electoral systems are considered impositions by kufr and the empowerment of representatives of the people to legislate a violation of hakimiyya, or the divine rule of Allah to arbitrate. Such political undercurrents are not only ripe for exploitation, but historically reminiscent of earlier movements. The same doctrines embraced by HT, the writings and teachings of Sayyid Qutb and A’la Mawdudi, also inspired the genesis of Jamiat-i Islami after the Saur Revolution in the 1970s. During its nascent years in Kabul, members included then-youth Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who would later emerge as powerful mujahid and power-brokers leaning into the civil war and the power vacuum that gave rise to the Taliban. The drive to join Jamiat and the drive of today’s youth toward HT are quite synonymous, revolving primarily around palpable doctrine that justify political grievances and perceived marginalization.

This, coupled with Taliban adamancy that they “have all the time,” however, is far from prophetic. The enduring defiance and resilience of the Afghan people demonstrated, not only in the recent elections, but the developments so far give credence to an opportunity for Afghanistan to break free of the cycle of conflict. This momentum must be channeled toward a processes of national reconciliation, inclusion, and a shared socio-political identity, efforts which the electoral process and upcoming political transition serve as an opportunity to promote. The defiance to take the course at least is clear, as a Kandahar local noted, “… I would be proud to die with a colored finger,” residue from the permanent voting ink. To stay the course- to live with a colored finger- is paramount, for both Afghans and the supporting international community. The process and transition will no doubt suffer pitfalls, but as Rumi once posited: “If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”

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