India shouldn’t lose the Afghan plot

Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah casts vote in presidential election, Kabul, September 28, 2019

India is probably the only country to hail the “successful conduct of Presidential elections” in Afghanistan on September 28. Everyone else is holding breath. Curiously, the unusually muted campaign highlighted that candidates themselves seemed uninterested in spending money on an election whose outcome was a foregone conclusion or in risking lives on large-scale campaigns. 

The turnout was abysmally low. Afghan officials estimate that 2 to 2.5 million people went to the polling booths out of 9.5 registered voters in a country with eligible electorate of at least 20 to 25 million in a population of around 35 million. 

Now, even the figure of 2 or 2.5 million may significantly drop further when the counting of votes begins and some ballots are deemed fraudulent and other votes are rejected for technical reasons. 

The Sept 28 election must be a world record — one of the weakest turnouts for any national election anywhere in the world. The voter apathy is palpable — in fact, 7 million voters had cast votes in the 2014 presidential election. 

Strangely enough, the scale of violence didn’t spike on Sept 28, as was forecast — more or less at the daily average. Evidently, Taliban decided to test the water instead of being a violent “spoiler”. The Taliban have since drawn satisfaction that even without any attempt on their part to create mayhem, the voter apathy with the “Afghan democracy” stood out, and in a statement, they have hailed the “absolute rejection and boycott (of the election) by the nation.”

How on earth South Block came to the exciting conclusion that the Sept 28 election demonstrated the Afghan people’s “faith in democratic governance and constitutional processes despite threats, intimidation and violence” and constituted “an important milestone in people’s efforts to promote peace, security, stability, prosperity and democracy in their country” our mandarins only can tell.

Delhi’s Afghan policy has narrowed down to a single agenda — the continuance of the Ashraf Ghani-Amrullah Saleh duo in power for next four years. Indeed, there is no way the duo can lose this election, given their high degree of control over the state apparatus and the election machinery.

But the question of legitimacy will haunt another Ghani-Saleh government from Day 1. The heart of the matter is that this will be a non-Pashtun mandate. Even a cursory glance at Afghanistan’s political map (below) would show that hardly any voting took place in the southern and eastern provinces which are Pashtun-dominated and under Taliban control. 

 With the northern warlord (and former Balkh governor) Atta Noor and his (erstwhile Northern Alliance) coterie voicing support for President Ghani in recent days, the alchemy of the mandate turned decisively non-Pashtun. Saleh himself is a Tajik. In essence, we have a Pashtun titular figurehead who has no power base among Pashtuns who is being catapulted to power by his Tajik associates. Yet, Pashtuns form nearly half of Afghanistan’s population. 

Indeed, some fundamental questions arise as regards the country’s future internal stability. Centralisation of power has been a long-running malaise in Afghan national life and it is about to get exacerbated with the shift in the balance of power away from the Pashtuns, who have been historically the dominant group. 

The paradox is that centralisation of power is not really in the interest of Tajiks or any of the non-Pashtun communities. In fact, Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik himself, who opposed Ghani, favours a decentralised model under a parliamentary system that devolves powers to the regions. The Hazaras have always regarded such a decentralised system as their salvation. A parliamentary system in the prevailing circumstances would guarantee a broad-based inclusive government that included the Taliban.  But, alas, the Ghani-Saleh duo seek centralisation of power, which is, of course the recipe for another spell of mafia rule — arbitrary rule, rampant corruption and venality, warlordism and state repression.

The outcome of the Sept 28 election will sharpen ethnic divisions and in the period ahead, this will have implications for Afghanistan’s political stability. 

India’s myopic view of the Afghan situation stemming from its enmity toward Pakistan differentiates it from other regional states — especially China and Russia who take a holistic view. To be sure, China shares with Russia the profound worry that Afghan peace may remain elusive. Both China and Russia are taking own measures to minimise the security threat emanating from an unstable Afghanistan although both support the early resumption of the US-Taliban negotiations. 

To be sure, neither China and Russia will quarrel with the apocalyptic scenario sketched by Afghan National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday. Mohib said:

“Many Taliban commanders, hardliners that did not want to join the peace process. We had intelligence that showed they are going to join ISIS. That threat may increase over a period of time. For the time being, ISIS is not a strategic threat to us. We have been able to get rid of them in places they have taken hold. But if the peace process goes wrong and doesn’t really integrate all of the Taliban, the hardliners may join ISIS, which is when it will become a strategic threat to us and our international partners.”

A commentary in the Global Times on Friday — the first since the shocking September 7 announcement by US president Donald Trump calling off the talks with the Taliban — brings out vividly that there is much going on beyond the Afghan election. 

The commentary entitled Collaborative governance key to Afghan peace is authored by a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies. It concludes, “Generally, collaborative governance is of great importance to promote peace in Afghanistan. In particular, China and the US should make use of their own advantages to strengthen cooperation in the Afghan peace process. This not only benefits Afghanistan’s peace, but also is in line with the interests of both China and the US.”

In political science, “collaborative governance” refers to the internal processes in a country with accent on consensus-building and collaborative network between the public, private and community sectors. But the Chinese pundit sidesteps the Afghan election as of now — understandably so — and focuses instead on “collaborative governance among major powers.” 

The Chinese commentary must stimulate the Indian policymaker to introspect why Delhi is losing its way because of its tunnel vision where its Afghan policy has narrowed down to the fate of a clutch of power brokers in Kabul.