All Eyes on the Afghan Elections

Syed Zafar Mehdi

The countdown has begun. The battle lines are drawn. All the political pundits are gearing up, with a certain degree of thrill and edginess, for the biggest political spectacle in this part of the world: Presidential elections of Afghanistan in April 2014. From Washington to Kabul, and every capital in between, everyone is watching keenly. The momentous democratic transition will see a new government taking charge and a new man at the helm. After sitting at the helm for 12 long, eventful years; President Hamid Karzai will finally step down and the highly fortified Presidential Palace will have a new, high-profile occupant.

These elections come at a crucial juncture in the chequered history of this war-weary country. The ominous threat of terrorism still persists. The malaise of corruption, nepotism and patronage still beleaguers the political system. The national economy is still dependant on the foreign aid. The blatant war crimes by the NATO and U.S. forces continue to be reported from all the major provinces.

The year 2014 will be momentous for Afghanistan. The elections in April would be followed by withdrawal of NATO-led troops in December 2014. The elections would take place in the midst of a profound political and economic uncertainty, and the major challenges to be addressed include eliminating security threats, keeping the economy afloat and building on the progress made in last one decade.

Political experts opine there is no functional plan in place to facilitate the smooth political transition to a new ruling dispensation. The bottlenecks remain, primarily because both the U.S. and Afghan governments have failed to nurture a robust political system under which the Afghan people can democratically elect the leaders of their choice.

The discrepancies in the selection of Presidential candidates by Independent Election Commission (IEC) continued this year again. Many candidates, who were disqualified for not fulfilling the requirements, lambasted IEC for the unfair policy and favoritism. Earlier, there were speculations that President Karzai would amend country’s election laws that prevent him from contesting for third time on trot. But, he decided to field his loyal candidates, which means he will still call the shots from behind. This arrangement can be similar to the one between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Whoever comes to the power, the challenges would be massive. The new man has to tackle the menace of corruption. He has to work for good governance and efficient system. He has to crackdown on narcotics and opium trade. He has to eliminate the threats from armed opposition groups. He has to deal with arrogant powers of West. He has to warm up to neighboring states and closely work with the international community.

The frontrunners in the race include Ashraf Ghanin and Abdullah Abdullah, but there are a few dark horses too. Ashraf Ghani wields considerable clout in the Pashtun community and was one-time presidential contender. He is likely to face tough challenge from Abdullah Abdullah, the bitter rival of President Karzai who contested against him in the previous elections and withdrew from the race after reports of bungling and irregularities surfaced up. He is again in the race and looks determined. President Karzai’s elder multi-millionaire brother Qayyum Karzai has also jumped the bandwagon.

There is a widespread perception in Afghanistan that the United States acts as kingmaker, and whomever the U.S. supports is likely to become the next president.

War Crimes in Afghanistan

While Afghanistan gears up for its tryst with history, the concerns over rampant human rights violations remain unaddressed. Rolling Stone magazine came up with a startling expose last month. The groundbreaking investigative report alleged that U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan were involved in widespread abuse and torture of civilians, sending shockwaves across the world. “If true, these accusations would amount to some of the gravest war crimes perpetrated by American forces since 2001,” wrote Matthieu Aikins, who carried out the investigation.

It’s Washington’s longest war, longer than WW II and I combined. American humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan has been marred by many cases of blatant human rights abuses since 2001. In most cases, the lack of cooperation from the U.S. authorities in investigative processes has resulted in travesty of justice. National Directorate of Security (NDS) had to give up its investigation into the killing of 17 civilians in Wardak province after they were refused access to U.S. Special Forces. In a report published on September 23, NDS investigators said they had asked the United States for access to three U.S. Green Berets and four Afghan translators working with them but were rebuffed. “Despite many requests by NDS, they have not cooperated. Without their cooperation, this process cannot be completed,” said the report.

These 17 men disappeared after being arrested in raids in Wardak between October 2012 and February 2013. Bodies of 10 of them were later found by residents in shallow graves in close proximity of the base of U.S. soldiers.

The involvement of U.S. forces in Wardak killings is only the latest case of its complicity in the abuse of civilians over the last decade in Afghanistan. The official response to such gruesome incidents has always been callous and cruel. Because of the immunity, the U.S. forces manage to get away with the most horrendous crimes and abuses.

Wardak killings are not an isolated case. In March 2007 in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, U.S. Marines indulged in indiscriminate fire on people, killing at least 19 civilians. Despite the investigation, no one was ever charged. In 2010, in Maiwand district of Kandahar, U.S. forces were implicated in killings of several civilians. Although some junior-rung officers were charged and convicted, the commander of the units was never charged despite his direct involvement in the incident. Now, these Wardak killings have shocked the whole nation, further denting the image of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. As President Karzai said recently, “they (Americans) do not have the right to kill an entire family in pursuit of a Taliban fighter who is in the same bus. People shouldn’t suffer so hugely and tragically.’’

International Criminal Court (ICC) came up with more shocking revelations recently. In its November 2013 report on Preliminary Examination Activities, the ICC Prosecutor’s Office found that the war crimes and crimes against humanity continue to be committed in Afghanistan, despite the commitments made by different stakeholders to uphold the rule of law and fundamental rights. Taking strong note of the incriminating findings in the ICC report, Human Rights Watch has asked ICC to expedite its preliminary inquiry on grave international crimes committed in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has also repeatedly voiced its concern over the rampant human rights abuses in Afghanistan, demanding stringent action against the perpetrators. Representatives from HRW and AIHRC recently appealed to the government to order legal proceedings against those suspected of war crimes.

According to HRW, Afghan government has achieved little in its efforts to create a culture of accountability, especially concerning its own forces. The government’s ambitious Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice, envisioned in 2005, failed to make headway because of vested interests. In 2007, a group of influence-peddling warlords in parliament passed the National Stability and Reconciliation Law which gave amnesty to perpetrators of the large-scale human rights abuses committed before 2001.

Changing Political Dynamics

The recent months have witnessed bitter row between the U.S. and Afghan governments over US-Afghan bilateral security agreement. Kabul and Washington have held wide-ranging talks on the contentious agreement in last two years. The deliberations between the two parties have mostly been marked by acrimony and disagreements. It took John Kerry’s surprise visit to Kabul in October this year to break the ice and set the ball rolling, after which both the parties agreed in principle on most of the points. A draft of the agreement was prepared and placed before Loya Jirga – the grand assembly of 3000 high-profile Afghan tribal elders, religious figures and political bigwigs – last month to discuss and advise the government on whether or not to sign the deal. Jirga gave its nod, but President Karzai developed cold feet. He refused to sign the deal before elections.

The hardened critics of this Afghan-US security deal contend it will further undermine the sovereignty of Afghanistan and increase its dependence on United States. The deal, they fear, will embolden the armed rebels to carry out their sinister plots with vengeance. On the other hand, the vociferous votaries of the agreement think it is important for Afghanistan because of the vulnerability of its geopolitical position. With the antagonistic neighbors and weak internal security situation, they argue, the deal is in the best interests of this country.

If the deal passes through the Parliament and Karzai signs on the dotted line, it will essentially mean the departure of U.S military troops from Afghanistan will be indefinitely delayed, beyond d 2014, when all the NATO combat troops are supposed to withdraw. By virtue of the deal, the authorities of Afghanistan will not have legal jurisdiction over the U.S. military personnel with respect to offences committed by them. They will, however, be tried in their home country. U.S troops will not use Afghan territory or facilities to launch attacks against other countries, though it says nothing about drone strikes that continue unabated and lead to worst crimes against humanity. It also gives them the power to conduct raids in residential areas at night and engage in unilateral military operations, which the Afghan government has fiercely opposed and has contributed to concerns of President Karzai. For him, it is a precarious situation. To sign or not to sign is the question.

The vast majority of Afghans are not clear on the issues of immunity and jurisdiction. The free rein leads to impunity and since these U.S. troops enjoy immunity under Afghan laws, there is a lurking fear of them committing more horrendous crimes if they stay back post 2014.

Under this security agreement, U.S. will have nine military bases in eight areas of Afghanistan, including Kabul, Bagram, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Shindand, Helmand and Gardez. Although these are not permanent military bases, Taliban has warned against having permanent military bases. In a statement recently, the spokesperson for Taliban, while terming the endorsement of security deal by Loya Jirga a ‘historic wrong’ and the security agreement ‘a slavery document’, said the permanent military bases would change into ‘permanent graveyards’ for U.S.

President Hamid Karzai, defending his position on the controversial bilateral security agreement between Kabul and Washington, turned poetic in an interaction with newspersons and strategic experts in New Delhi last week. In a chaste accent, he explained the attitude of U.S. and conundrum of Afghanistan with a couplet that got many native Hindi speakers thinking: “Dua dete hain jeene ki; dava dete hain marne ki (they pray for our wellbeing, but serve medicine that can kill).

With less than four months to go for elections, it remains to be seen if President Karzai will relent and sign the deal or stay adamant till his term ends in April. The security deal and the elections will decide which course the country takes. It will either emerge stronger or slip back in chaos.

Author is a Kabul-based journalist, and editor of Afghan Zariza magazine

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