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Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition
Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death
Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death
Report 236 / Asia

Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition

Afghanistan is hurtling toward a devastating political crisis as the government prepares to take full control of security in 2014.

Executive Summary

Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014. That makes the political challenge of organising a credible presidential election and transfer of power from President Karzai to a successor that year all the more daunting. A repeat of previous elections’ chaos and chicanery would trigger a constitutional crisis, lessening chances the present political dispensation can survive the transition. In the current environment, prospects for clean elections and a smooth transition are slim. The electoral process is mired in bureaucratic confusion, institutional duplication and political machinations. Electoral officials indicate that security and financial concerns will force the 2013 provincial council polls to 2014. There are alarming signs Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favoured proxy. Demonstrating at least will to ensure clean elections could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse. Time is running out.

Institutional rivalries, conflicts over local authority and clashes over the role of Islam in governance have caused the country to lurch from one constitutional crisis to the next for nearly a decade. As foreign aid and investment decline with the approach of the 2014 drawdown, so, too, will political cohesion in the capital. To ensure political continuity and a stable security transition, action to correct flaws in the electoral framework and restore credibility to electoral and judicial institutions is needed well before the presidential and provincial council polls. Tensions have already begun to mount between the president and the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the National Assembly), as debate over electoral and other key legal reforms heats up. Opposition demands for changes to the structures of the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) and an overhaul of the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) election mechanism have become more vigorous by the day.

There is also, as yet, no sign of an agreement on the timing of the 2014 elections or the following year’s parliamentary elections, though President Karzai insisted on 4 October that the former would be held on time and “without interruption”. The IEC has hedged on publicly announcing the planned postponement of the provincial council polls, for fear that such an announcement could deepen the political crisis. At a minimum, the IEC must announce a timetable and a plan for the 2014 elections that adhere closely to constitutional requirements by December 2012, and a new IEC chairman must be selected to replace the outgoing chairman, whose term expires in April 2013, as well as a new chief electoral officer.

It is a near certainty that under current conditions the 2014 elections will be plagued by massive fraud. Vote rigging in the south and east, where security continues to deteriorate, is all but guaranteed. High levels of violence across the country before and on the day of the polls are likely to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands more would-be voters. The IEC will likely be forced to throw out many ballots. This would risk another showdown between the executive, legislature and judiciary. Under the current constitution and electoral laws, the government is not equipped to cope with legal challenges to polling results. Nearly a decade after the first election, parliament and the president remain deeply divided over the responsibilities of constitutionally-mandated electoral institutions. The IEC, its credibility badly damaged after the fraudulent 2009 and 2010 elections, is struggling to redefine its role as it works to reform existing laws. There is also still considerable disagreement over whether the ECC should take the lead in arbitrating election-related complaints.

It will be equally important to decide which state institution has final authority to adjudicate constitutional disputes before the elections. The uncertainty surrounding the responsibilities of the Supreme Court versus those of the constitutionally-mandated Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution (ICSIC) proved to be a critical factor in the September 2010 parliamentary polls. The Supreme Court’s subsequent decision to establish a controversial special tribunal on elections raised serious questions about its own impartiality. Institutional rivalries between the high court and ICSIC have increased considerably since then, with the Wolesi Jirga aggressively championing the latter’s primacy in opposition to the president.

The tug of war between these two constitutionally-mandated institutions has extended to Supreme Court appointments; two of nine positions on the bench are held by judges whose terms have already expired, and the terms of three more expire in 2013. The ICSIC faces similar questions about its legitimacy, since only five of its required seven commissioners have been appointed by the president and approved by parliament. Ambiguities over the roles of the Supreme Court and the constitutional commission must be resolved well before the presidential campaign begins in earnest in early 2013. An important first step would be to appoint the required judges and commissioners.

Institutional rivalry between the high court and the constitutional commission, however, can no more be resolved by presidential decree than it can by a simple parliamentary vote. Constitutional change will ultimately be necessary to restore the Supreme Court’s independence and to establish clear lines of authority between it and the ICSIC. Even if wholesale constitutional change is not possible in the near term, legal measures must be adopted within the next year to minimise the impact of institutional rivalry over electoral disputes and to ensure continuity between the end of Karzai’s term and the start of the next president’s term.

Although Karzai has signalled his intent to exit gracefully, fears remain that he may, directly or indirectly, act to ensure his family’s continued majority ownership stake in the political status quo. This must be avoided. It is critical to keep discord over election results to a minimum; any move to declare a state of emergency in the event of a prolonged electoral dispute would be catastrophic. The political system is too fragile to withstand an extension of Karzai’s mandate or an electoral outcome that appears to expand his family’s dynastic ambitions. Either would risk harming negotiations for a political settlement with the armed and unarmed opposition. It is highly unlikely a Karzai-brokered deal would survive under the current constitutional scheme, in which conflicts persist over judicial review, distribution of local political power and the role of Islamic law in shaping state authority and citizenship. Karzai has considerable sway over the system, but his ability to leverage the process to his advantage beyond 2014 has limits. The elections must be viewed as an opportunity to break with the past and advance reconciliation.

Quiet planning should, nonetheless, begin now for the contingencies of postponed elections and/or imposition of a state of emergency in the run up to or during the presidential campaign season in 2014. The international community must work with the government to develop an action plan for the possibility that elections are significantly delayed or that polling results lead to prolonged disputes or a run-off. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) should likewise be prepared to organise additional support to Afghan forces as needed in the event of an election postponement or state of emergency; its leadership would also do well to assess its own force protection needs in such an event well in advance of the election.

All this will require more action by parliament, less interference from the president and greater clarity from the judiciary. Failure to move on these fronts could indirectly lead to a political impasse that would provide a pretext for the declaration of a state of emergency, a situation that would likely lead to full state collapse. Afghan leaders must recognise that the best guarantee of the state’s stability is its ability to guarantee the rule of law during the political and military transition in 2013-2014. If they fail at this, that crucial period will at best result in deep divisions and conflicts within the ruling elite that the Afghan insurgency will exploit. At worst, it could trigger extensive unrest, fragmentation of the security services and perhaps even a much wider civil war. Some possibilities for genuine progress remain, but the window for action is narrowing.

Kabul/Brussels, 8 October 2012

Op-Ed / Asia

Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death

Originally published in The Interpreter


The recent confirmation of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the symbolic leader of the Taliban, has added fresh uncertainty to Afghanistan's fledgling peace process. 

There were already signs that Taliban unity was under stress, and the internal disagreements that have emerged since the announcement of Omar's death have raised concerns that the insurgency could further dissolve into warring factions. These developments raise the daunting prospect of trying to broker peace with a movement at war with itself. 

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani enjoyed a minor breakthrough in his long efforts to negotiate an end to the insurgency when his team sat down with Taliban officials for talks in Pakistan on 7 July. His government went into those negotiations knowing that some in the Taliban rejected peace talks and would probably break away from the main group.

Earlier this year, Afghan intelligence estimated that 10% might switch their allegiance to ISIS or other hardline factions if they saw their leaders negotiating. Some Western analysts guessed an even higher percentage would defect, refusing to die on sun-baked battlefields for leaders who talked in air-conditioned hotels.

In fact, the talks may have had an even more profoundly destabilising effect. The Taliban published a statement supposedly signed by Omar in support of peace negotiations on 15 June, but internal opponents of the talks tried to undermine the process by questioning its authenticity. They complained that the process had been 'hijacked' by Pakistan and demanded that Omar back up his statement with proof of his existence.

The top Taliban leadership was eventually forced to confirm suspicions that its reclusive leader had died. Omar's former deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, was appointed to succeed him on 31 July. Though the Taliban arranged displays of support for Mansour in the following days, and many field commanders have pledged allegiance to him, the movement seems divided. Tayyeb Agha, head of the political commission, resigned on 4 August due to tensions with Mansour and reports are emerging of fighters quitting en masse to join more extreme groups.

This latest turmoil in the insurgency comes after months of escalating conflict between militant factions. Two databases maintained by Western security analysts show that armed clashes between insurgent groups have tripled or quadrupled since 2013, as infighting has spread to more than half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

In previous years, the internecine battles were largely over money or historical grudges, often involving old feuds between the Taliban and the armed wing of the Hezb-e Islami political party which fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s. This year the conflicts have been concentrated in eastern Afghanistan, frequently pitting the Taliban against a variety of more extreme militants who seem less willing to entertain peace talks.

While battles against self-declared ISIS factions have grabbed most of the headlines, the Taliban have also fought Lashkar-e-Taiba (a Pakistan-based militant group), parts of the Pakistani Taliban and smaller groups such as Fidai Mahaz. A tiny faction such as Fidai Mahaz poses no military threat to the Taliban, but such groups are spreading propaganda – including a claim that Omar was poisoned – that could further undermine insurgency unity.

The dissent often focuses on the Taliban's recent forays into politics, and the degree to which some groups feel the movement's hardline ethos is being undermined. The Taliban is discovering that it's easy to rally fighters with a battle cry, but more difficult to transform an insurgency loosely based on opposition to the status quo into a coherent political organisation with a vision for the future. Shortly after the Taliban admitted Omar's death, the central leadership of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an occasional ally, formally swore allegiance to ISIS.

Such losses seem likely to escalate in coming weeks as field commanders decide where their loyalty rests. Before this recent leadership crisis, Pakistani intelligence had been telling Western diplomats that Mullah Mansour commanded about 40% of insurgent fighters in Afghanistan. His biggest rival, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a senior member of the leadership council, held sway over perhaps 20%, with the remainder controlled by lesser commanders. Those percentages almost certainly involved many guesses, and probably reflected an inclination to exaggerate the importance of Mullah Mansour, who is considered an ally of Pakistani intelligence

Whatever his actual degree of authority, Mansour has been pushing to consolidate his hold in recent days. Mullah Zakir has formally disavowed any conflict with him, and the first public statement from the new leader was carefully lukewarm on the peace talks, an apparent effort to mollify all sides. 

Mansour has the advantage of controlling power levers such as the Taliban media and intelligence apparatus; the latter selects assassination targets and allegedly coordinates with Pakistani security. If he succeeds in uniting the main factions and fending off challenges from rival insurgent groups, it could eventually help with peace negotiations by giving the Afghan government a single major interlocutor.

But nobody knows how much of Taliban logistical support in the field comes from the central leadership. One theory is that most fighters operate close to their homes and depend more heavily on illegal taxation and other local revenue. If correct, the field commanders may have some latitude to decide to support Mansour, shift their allegiances to groups such as ISIS or break away completely and start new careers as bandits or warlords.

For peace negotiators, the nightmare scenario would be a splintering of the insurgency into a thousand sharp pieces.