Uneven situation in Afghanistan

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Schehram Siddiqi at confusing signals emerging from Kabul

Afghan elections

With the increase in violence gripping Afghan parliamentary elections different developments are taking place in the country pointing towards an ominous change. With reports of ongoing contacts between the Taliban and American diplomatic representatives, the Afghan electoral process has been declared disgraceful by Afghan Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar returned to Afghanistan amidst hopes expressed by the Kabul regime of President Ashraf Ghani that a national reconciliation was on the anvil.

Hekmatyar fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and his resistance was one of the strongest against the Soviets. He was feared for his potent military strength and he was noted for his hard line in national affairs. He went into exile in Iran and only recently to Afghanistan and has reportedly re-organised his political party. He is now reckoned to be the leader of one of Afghanistan’s most powerful political parties and readily denounced chaotic delays at polling stations in last weekend’s parliamentary elections as a “disgrace”.

Hekmatyar’s comments came after he met candidates of his party participating in elections and clearly indicate the growing criticism of his party about the flawed electoral process. Hekmatyar is widely known for not mincing his words and is famous for obdurately following what he believes in. He appears very discontented about the way the Kabul regime has organised the elections and the lack of security prevalent throughout the election process. He decided to speak against the elections after getting convinced that there was no recourse open to obtain satisfactory resolution of the election fiasco.

The election in Afghanistan was widely disputed as a doctored exercise. Although the country’s Independent Election Commission mentioned that some 4 million people voted but Hekmatyar said more than half the nation was intentionally excluded. He reiterated that the election commission failed to hold free and fair elections. The repudiation of elections by a high ranking political leader like Hekmatyar will seriously dent the claims of credibility proffered by Kabul’s Western-backed government. During the entire course of electoral exercise Taliban militants operated freely across much of the country creating a chaotic situation.

Hizb-i Islami has withheld its approval for the election result pointing out towards prospects of potential protests and accusations of corruption and electoral fraud. Hizb-i Islami is one of Afghanistan’s major political movements, drawing its support mainly from ethnic Pashtuns. Any opposition from it may be difficult to contain by the already wobbly Kabul regime. Hekmatyar may soon gain support within the mainstream political elements that may further complicate the situation. Almost all political groups in the country have evinced their disapproval of the electoral practices.

The electoral situation in Afghanistan revealed that mass political parties, mainly divided along ethnic lines, are relatively undeveloped in Afghanistan. Only around seven percent of the 2,500 candidates running represented a party, with the rest standing as independents. Most of the candidates contesting elections belonged to the younger generation who are wary of traditional political associations. The party political following has proved difficult to achieve due to the violence-oriented political climate in the country. There is hardly any singular unifying factor in the political arena but there are countless factors actively engaged in spreading disunity.

One of the major factors of political instability is that under Afghanistan’s constitution, most political power is held by the president and parliament’s job is mainly to review or oversee legislation. The office is quite powerful notionally but the situation on the ground has proved that in many matters the president is quite ineffective particularly against the warlords controlling many territories on behalf of the government.

Hekmatyar
Mullah Baradar

Despite strong centralised presidency political parties do possess the potential to mobilise protests by groups that feel they lost out in an election marred by a series of technical and organisational failures that forced voters to wait for hours in some cases before casting a ballot. The inefficient conduct of elections led to registration of 13,000 complaints and it is quite certain that many more were not even lodged though dissatisfaction was widespread. In the absence of an electoral method to bring about change, people tend to look for alternate methods boosting authority of the local warlords.

In another recent development a senior Taliban commander arrested in 2010 and held in Pakistan has been released from prison. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was released probably as a result of high level negotiations. Mullah Baradar was a senior figure in the Taliban hierarchy and was known to coordinate military operations in southern Afghanistan.

His release could possibly be related to U.S. efforts to revive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who have seized nearly half the country in recent years. The release of Baradar comes after the visit of foreign minister of Qatar to Pakistan recently. Qatar has since long allowed the Taliban to maintain a political office in Doha.

Schehram Siddiqi is an industrialist based in Lahore

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