As multiple rounds of direct talks between the United States and the Taliban reached a dead-end in September, rekindled hopes for an as-yet elusive peace in Afghanistan have now converged on the 2019 presidential election. The election instigated a heated divide among Afghan politicians for much of the year: some vehemently advocated for elections to be held while others fervently chanted “peace talks first,” using the repeated election delays to discredit the government. The Afghan government—which felt sidelined by the U.S.-Taliban talks and has run a relentless “elections first” campaign —seemed optimistic about the delay.
But in the wake of a fraudulent election with the lowest turnout since 2004, and the apparent revival of the U.S.-Taliban peace talks, the Afghan government is losing leverage and credibility on both fronts. Its weakened legitimacy casts a negative light on the future of security in Afghanistan. The government will likely be unable to forcefully involve itself in the peace process moving forward, which affects its ability to preserve the constitutional rights of its citizens and enables the Taliban to claim greater leverage.
2019 Elections: Electorate Losing Faith in the Process
[The Afghan government’s] weakened legitimacy casts a negative light on the future of security in Afghanistan. The government will likely be unable to forcefully involve itself in the peace process moving forward, which affects its ability to preserve the constitutional rights of its citizens and enables the Taliban to claim greater leverage.
A revamped Independent Election Commission (IEC) and Election Complaint Commission (IECC) presented a chance to restore people’s trust in electoral institutions and the country’s nascent democracy. Preliminary estimates suggest, however, that on election day, turnout was less than 2 million, roughly 20 percent of the 9.57 million Afghans who had registered to vote. The lackluster turnout demonstrated that Afghans have lost trust in the elections and electoral institutions after the fraudulent 2014 presidential elections that plummeted the country into a year-long crisis. After this came yet another controversial 2018 parliamentary elections mired in accusations of gerrymandering and rigging, held after a three-and-a-half-year delay. Security threats also contributed to low voter turnout, as the Taliban had declared all polling sites and electoral events military targets.
The government has largely missed its chance to enact electoral reforms, which has called the legitimacy of the Afghan electoral process into question yet again. Even if the first round of the recent election produces an outright winner, the legitimacy of the prospective president will likely be under question, as in a country with roughly 30 million people, the margin of victory would be less than one million. Moreover, reports suggest that the election was widely rigged and fraudulent. So far, 770,000 to 900,000 votes seem to have been invalidated in the tallying process and in addition, some presidential candidates are contesting approximately 137,000 votes. Against that backdrop, it is likely that the turnout will further drop in the event of a runoff.
The non-partisanship of the electoral institutions is also under scrutiny. For example, the election commissioners—responsible for administering the election—are voted in by the presidential candidates. This is seen as mitigating dependence on the erstwhile authority of the president and the power-sharing Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to pick commissioners. However, the legality of this voting process is contested. Afghanistan lacks an electoral court, or any other independent body outside the executive and legislative branches with a stake in the elections, to manage elections and election-related decisionmaking. In other words, there is no rulebook for elections, and each time there is a crisis, those in charge respond with ad hoc solutions that only sow the seeds of a future crisis.
Yearning for Inclusion in Peace Talks, Failing to Reach a Consensus
The Afghan government lacks leverage and suffers from a crippling lack of consensus with regard to the ongoing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, which also calls into question its overall legitimacy. The political divisions within the Afghan government have made it unable to clearly define its position vis-a-vis the United States and the Taliban.
Indeed, the only semblance of unity within the Afghan government has been its staunch opposition to the talks—it remains opposed to any direct talks between the United States and the Taliban on the grounds that they weaken its leverage in peace negotiations and threaten its sovereignty. The September talks initially focused on four topics: withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, anti-terrorism guarantees from the Taliban, inclusion of the Afghan government in the negotiations, and a permanent Afghanistan-wide ceasefire. By the ninth round of the talks, the United States and the Taliban had agreed only on the first two topics, deferring the latter two points to the intra-Afghan talks that would take place after the two sides had signed an initial agreement. Having already expressed concern over the draft agreement, the Afghan government welcomed the cancellation of the U.S.-Taliban talks, asserting that any and all future peace efforts must involve the Afghan government and support a country-wide ceasefire.
As the U.S.-Taliban show signs of revival, the Afghan government’s position remains weak due to a lack of consensus, within and beyond the government.
As the U.S.-Taliban talks show signs of revival, the Afghan government’s position remains weak due to a lack of consensus, within and beyond the government. In a fresh move geared at strengthening its position in the talks, the Afghan presidential palace drafted a 7-point peace plan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the CEO slammed the plan, calling it only a “wish list” and claiming that “nobody is taking it seriously — neither the people of Afghanistan, nor anybody.” Moreover, in June, the government established the State Ministry for Peace to accelerate its efforts towards peace talks, but the ministry itself appears sidelined as the president has unilaterally worked out the 7-point concept.
Although participation of a delegation representing the Afghan government in forthcoming talks with the Taliban in China could help the government secure a greater role in the peace process, the Taliban’s position remains strong. Just recently, in return for the release of two American professors kidnapped in 2016, the Taliban asked for the release of 80 of their prisoners, including Anas Haqqani, son of the founder of the Haqqani Network, which is fighting against the government and has killed many Afghan civilians. Despite the unreasonable balance in the swap, the issue was discussed in Kabul, denoting the Taliban’s outsized influence in the peace talks. President Ashraf Ghani ultimately authorized the release of Haqqani and two other prisoners to secure the release of the professors. However, as the United States’ concessions to the Taliban have made clear, such an approach does not result in meaningful anti-terrorism guarantees but instead emboldens the Taliban.
Losing on Both Fronts?
By all calculations, the Afghan government is losing the war for political control in Afghanistan on both the election and peace-talk fronts. The Afghan government’s persisting lack of involvement in peace talks weakens its position. As claims of election fraud and a general erosion of trust wear down on the government, the historic low election turnout puts the legitimacy of the next president into question. As a result, it further exacerbates the current political divide, making it impossible for the Afghan government and the political class to present a unified stance in defense of the constitutional rights of Afghans and a democratic political system in the face of an over two-decade-long challenge from the Taliban. This could compromise the strides the country has made towards democracy since the early 2000s. It is the need of the hour that the Afghan government act concertedly to halt the undemocratic trends such as electoral fraud that are eroding public trust in national institutions, and in turn prevent the resurgent influence of the Taliban.
Image 1: Paula Bronstein via Getty Images
Image 2: Paula Bronstein via Getty Images