Elections in Afghanistan – and in the United States – are in the news from and about Kabul.
For months now a question mark has hung over the September 28 Afghan vote, in which President Ashraf Ghani will face off against his own Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, as America prioritized securing a deal with the insurgents that would allow it to begin exiting its longest war.
With the agreement seemingly imminent – and the US-backed government in Kabul undermined as rumors swirled of an interim regime – many Afghans and observers had expected the poll to be canceled outright.
Even the more-than-a-dozen candidates – who include former warlords, ex-spies and onetime members of the country’s communist regime – did not appear to believe it would take place, with little in the way of campaigning.
As the incumbent, Ghani is presumed to be the favorite, though with the lack of campaigning or credible polling observers cautioned against making any predictions.
But with Trump’s bombshell announcement Saturday that the US-Taliban talks were off, the situation changed.
The Taliban quickly made it known that the only alternative was more fighting – and with renewed focus on the election, which they have always opposed, the polls are a prime target, as they seek to delegitimize any resulting government by minimizing turnout.
“The Taliban will do everything possible to disrupt the election,”Haroun Mir, an independent analyst based in Kabul, told AFP. “We expect more violence,”
Abdul Waheed Wafa, the executive director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, described a mood of confusion and fear.
“Nobody at the moment is ready, not the people of Afghanistan, not the election commission and not even the government,” he said.
The presidential vote, Afghanistan’s fourth since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, has already been delayed twice this year.
Turnout could be “very, very low,” Wafa added, citing fear of violence and a loss of hope among voters following widespread fraud allegations during the 2014 election, for which there was no credible turnout estimate.
Both Ghani and former anti-Soviet fighter Abdullah claimed they had won that contest, with the US stepping in to broker a fragile power-sharing agreement.
Last October’s legislative elections were bloodied by a series of deadly attacks as the Taliban called on citizens to stay away.
“We are so scared … we are wary, we are concerned and we don’t know what kind of election we will have,” Wafa said.
With US-Taliban talks suddenly scuppered by Trump’s tweets, the insurgents are now expected to try to deprive Ghani of legitimacy – which some already feel is in short supply after he was sidelined by Washington in its Taliban talks.
Ghani and his officials had complained loudly over being kept out. They see the election as a way to reaffirm their right to negotiate for Afghans.
“Any future path towards peace has to be based on will of the Afghan people… and it should be owned and led by the Afghan government,” said government spokesman Sediq Sediqqi.
A key element of the US-Taliban talks had been securing a guarantee from the insurgents that they will hold a direct dialogue with Kabul, deemed crucial to ending the nearly 18-year conflict.
They have historically refused to speak to a government they deem a “puppet” of the US.
But if the government – which has also been blighted by corruption and disunity – does win a strong mandate, then “the Taliban will have no alternative but to deal with it,” argues the analyst Mir.
The question is whether the elections can be seen as fair and representative, say experts from the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
AAN analyst Thomas Ruttig told AFP that with the election so near it was “difficult to speculate … there is very little time left for campaigning”.
The Taliban, he said, “have enough power to disrupt the vote”.
If they do, as ever in Afghanistan, it is civilians who will pay a disproportionate price.
“Stop breaking more hearts!” Facebook user Omid Sharifi wrote this week, adding that there are no winners in the escalating violence.
Meanwhile in Houston
Afghanistan came up briefly in a Houston debate among ten 2020 Democratic presidential contenders Thursday night.
“Bring our troops home,” said Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a veteran of military service in Afghanistan. “Today you could be 18 years old – old enough to serve – and not have been alive at the time of 9/11.”
It’s not necessary to have an open commitment of ground troops to keep terrorists from using Afghanistan’s soil to attack the US, Buttigieg said. “Tell me what winning looks like,” he added, saying that the problems of the country “cannot be solved by the military.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden seemed to agree. Afghanistan “will not be put together” with military action, he said. Instead of keeping ground troops in the country indefinitely, he said, the US should prevail upon Pakistan to permit operation of a US airlift operation to deal with emergencies.
War of words
Afghans are bracing for fresh violence after Donald Trump abruptly scuttled US-Taliban talks, yanking this month’s presidential election back into the spotlight as the militants look to keep voters from the polls with bloody attacks.
The war of words between the Taliban and Trump escalated Thursday as the Afghan insurgents warned that the US leader had failed to grasp “what type of nation he is dealing with”.
The latest salvo in the bitter exchange comes a day after Trump boasted during a 9/11 anniversary ceremony that US forces have “hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before and that will continue” just days after peace talks between the two sides collapsed.
“Trump (@realDonaldTrump) must tread carefully,” tweeted Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
“He has yet to grasp the type of nation he is dealing with. His advisers must make him understand & introduce the Graveyard of Empires #Afghanistan to him.”
Until this weekend there had been steadily mounting expectations of a deal that would see the US drawdown troop levels in Afghanistan.
In return, the Taliban would offer security guarantees to keep extremist groups out.
But then on Saturday, Trump revealed on Twitter that he had cancelled an unprecedented meeting between the Taliban and himself at Camp David and later said the talks with the militants were “dead”.
The Taliban spokesman’s tweet comes just hours after the group launched a suicide attack that killed at least four soldiers near Kabul, as the insurgents ramp up attacks on security forces.
The incident occurred at a special forces base in Char Asiab district just south of the capital Kabul where an insurgent driving a car packed with explosives detonated near the facility’s entrance.
“Four soldiers were killed, and three injured,” said interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.
Afghan special forces — numbering around 17,000 represent a small fraction of the 300,000 strong Afghan armed forces but have been carrying out the bulk of offensive operations across Afghanistan in recent years.
As fears of increased violence soared with presidential elections approaching later this month, Afghan troops and Taliban insurgents have been engaged in heavy exchanges across Afghanistan, with several militant-controlled districts in the far north falling to government forces.
However, the Taliban continue to strike Afghan installations at will after the militants issued their own vow earlier in the week to continue fighting and make the US regret walking away from talks.
With reporting by AFP