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Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation
Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Report 62 / Asia

Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation

Prospects for an enduring peace in Afghanistan are still fragile despite progress since the ouster of the Taliban in December 2001.

Executive Summary

Prospects for an enduring peace in Afghanistan are still fragile despite progress since the ouster of the Taliban in December 2001. A key obstacle is the perception of many ethnic Pashtuns that they lack meaningful representation in the central government, particularly in its security institutions. Other factors contributing to growing alienation from the Bonn political process include continued violence against Pashtuns in parts of the north and west, heavy-handed search operations and collaboration with abusive commanders by the U.S.-led Coalition, and impediments to trade in the southern and eastern provinces. Unless measures are taken to address these grievances and ensure that a more representative government emerges from the forthcoming election, there will be a greater likelihood of the political process ending in failure.

Although headed by a Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, the Interim Administration created in Bonn in December 2001 was dominated by a mainly Panjshiri Tajik armed faction, the Shura-yi Nazar-i Shamali (Supervisory Council of the North). The “power ministries” of defence, interior and foreign affairs were held respectively by Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Younus Qanuni, and Abdullah Abdullah, all members of Shura-yi Nazar. The Emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002, which was expected to install a more broadly representative and hence more legitimate government, ended up reinforcing the Panjshiri monopoly over the central government’s security institutions, though it included Pashtuns in key positions in financial institutions.

President Karzai is widely seen as having been unable to limit either the power of the Shura-yi Nazar at the centre or of commanders, irrespective of ethnicity, who wield power in other parts of the country. Unless the national security institutions are perceived as representing the population as a whole, their efforts at disarmament and demobilisation are unlikely to find popular support. At the same time, the authority of local commanders will be legitimated as a vehicle for resisting ethnic domination.

Alienation from the centre is compounded by the displacement of large numbers of Pashtuns in the north, amid a wave of ethnically targeted violence following the collapse of Taliban rule by factions of the United Front that helped the U.S.-led Coalition. UNHCR, the Karzai administration, and some regional authorities have taken steps to facilitate the return of displaced northern Pashtuns. The critical issue will be ensuring security and access to land for those communities that were displaced. The international community should also support continued monitoring of violence against Pashtuns in the north and west by non-Pashtun militias, which remains acute in the provinces of Herat and Badghis, and call on regional authorities to remove and hold accountable commanders responsible for these abuses.

To date, the south and east have had only a modest stake in the political and economic reconstruction processes outlined in the Bonn agreement. International assistance has been slow to materialise in areas outside of Kandahar and other major towns, while poppy cultivation has boomed. Commanders with little or no popular legitimacy remain the principle military partners of the Coalition, and have used their power to consolidate control over regional administrations and economies. In Pashtun areas, this has led to the growth of patronage systems along sub-ethnic lines and fuelled tensions within communities; those Pashtun tribes that lack kinship ties to local authorities are marginalised politically and economically.

The Coalition, whose entry into the Pashtun provinces was welcomed by a population that had grown disenchanted with the Taliban’s increasingly arbitrary and autocratic rule, has failed to capitalise on this reservoir of goodwill. Collaboration with local commanders has drawn the Coalition into their factional and personal rivalries, compromising its non-partisanship in disputes unrelated to the war on terrorism. Heavy-handed tactics in search operations and inadequate responses to reports of civilian deaths from air strikes have also fuelled discontent with the Coalition presence.

The risks posed by the growing disaffection among Pashtuns in Afghanistan should be self-evident. The Taliban came to power not only because of the military assistance provided by Pakistan, but also because local commanders had become notorious for their abusive conduct toward civilians and extortion of traders. The Taliban’s initial success in disarming the south and restoring a modicum of security was welcomed as a respite by large segments of the local population. Today, insecurity in the south and east, impediments to trade, and continued competition for influence by the neighbouring states present a set of conditions dangerously close to those prevailing at the time of the Taliban’s emergence. The risk of destabilisation has been given added weight by the re-emergence of senior Taliban commanders who are ready to capitalise on popular discontent and whose long-time allies now govern the Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan.

The elections scheduled for June 2004 will be a critical barometer of the credibility of the Bonn process among Afghanistan’s Pashtuns. Reform of the central government’s security institutions should be prioritised in advance of the elections. The removal of abusive regional authorities, and their replacement by educated professionals who are perceived as neutral actors will go a long way toward reclaiming support for the central government. Suitable individuals are not hard to find: there are a large number of Pashtun professionals with management and technical expertise gained through work with international agencies and NGOs in Afghanistan and among refugee communities in the neighbouring states. The international community should also work to ensure that non-militarised political parties have the necessary security space and legal authorisation to campaign freely in advance of the election.

Kabul/Brussels, 5 August 2003

Afghan election commission workers count ballot papers of the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan on 28 September 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace

Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election since 2001 brought perhaps 26 per cent of the electorate to the polls. In this Q&A, Crisis Group consultant Graeme Smith and Senior Analyst Borhan Osman explain the weak participation rate and explore the contest’s implications for the country’s stability.

What happened in Saturday’s Afghan presidential election?

Results will emerge slowly in the 28 September Afghan presidential election – the country’s fourth in its short post-2001 democratic history. Although both leading campaigns have already claimed a first-round victory, official preliminary tallies are not expected to be released until mid-October. Even then, the vote count will be subject to certification, which will come after electoral bodies adjudicate complaints about the process. If the official count shows no candidate gaining more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second round will be required. It is unlikely that a second round could be held until the spring, because winter weather makes voters’ access to polling places too difficult.

The contest features an incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, who enjoys a high degree of control over the state apparatus and a strong likelihood of fending off the dozen challengers seeking to replace him. Ghani’s strongest rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, had become his reluctant partner in a unity government after disputed election results in 2014 led to a political crisis. That crisis ended with a U.S.-brokered power-sharing arrangement.

Election day came after an unusually muted campaign period. Campaigning ahead of previous presidential polls saw contenders charter aircraft, fill stadiums and deliver speeches across the country. In contrast, the 2019 season was relatively quiet, with few rallies, and with candidates who seemed uninterested in spending money or risking lives on large-scale campaigns.

How many people voted?

Turnout was low. Although preliminary results will not be out for weeks, election officials are already estimating that about 2 or 2.5 million voters came to the polls. Those numbers may decrease as some ballots are deemed fraudulent and other votes are thrown out for technical violations. The likely number of final valid votes is hard to forecast because this is the first time Afghanistan has used biometric systems for voter verification in a presidential election. The top end of the current estimated turnout range is 26 per cent of 9.6 million registered voters, a lower turnout than in any other election in Afghanistan – and, in fact, among the weakest turnouts for any national election around the world in recent history. (The largest database of turnouts is maintained by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which contains only a few examples of voters staying away from the polls on such a scale.)

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency.

The turnout figures are likely to be weaker still when considered as a percentage of the eligible electorate. Registration efforts have had disappointing results, capturing only about half of the voting-age population. Approximately half of Afghanistan’s estimated population of about 35 million is eighteen or older and therefore eligible to vote. (Afghanistan has never had a complete census, so these figures are not precise and total population estimates vary by several million.)

Why was participation so low?

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban – who regard the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and therefore see presidential elections as illegitimate – threatened to disrupt the polls violently and pressed their supporters to boycott. After reports of low turnout emerged, the Taliban issued a statement thanking Afghans for shunning a “staged” process. Election authorities kept almost a third of polling centres closed, attributing their decision to security concerns. Voter frustrations with politicians and apathy might have been factors as well.

The Afghan government blamed Taliban violence for keeping Afghans from reaching the polls, and to some extent this may have been the case. A New York Times tally suggested that casualties on election day so far appear to be roughly in keeping with recent daily averages for the war, which ranks as the deadliest armed conflict in the world (measured by people killed directly in fighting). Although there were no mass-casualty incidents, the Afghanistan Analysts Network has so far counted about 400 smaller attacks that appear to reflect a pattern of voter intimidation by the Taliban. A burst of gunfire or a few mortars landing near a polling station appeared to be sufficient in many places to dampen enthusiasm for the process. Although Afghan security forces were deployed in large numbers to secure the voting process, the Taliban probably could have done more both to disrupt the polls and to inflict greater casualties if the group had decided to mount full-throttled attacks on polling sites – along the lines, for example, of the 17 September Taliban suicide attack at a Ghani campaign rally that killed 26 people.

What does the election mean for stability?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing.

Elections are usually a slow burn in Afghanistan, as results trickle out, how well (or not) the electoral bodies performed becomes clearer and politicians size up their opportunities. Street demonstrations or other forms of instability can occur weeks or months after voting. That said, the risk of a serious disruption to Kabul politics appears somewhat lower than in 2014, as Abdullah’s ability to challenge an unfavourable result may be weaker. As in the 2014 election, Abdullah quickly declared himself the winner, flanked by prominent supporters at a 30 September press event. This time around, however, Abdullah was missing his biggest supporter from 2014: the former governor of Balkh province, Atta Noor, a wealthy northern power-broker whose coterie has voiced support for President Ghani in recent days. Ghani himself has not declared victory in public, but one of his senior aides in Kabul told Crisis Group that the Palace is confident of a first-round win, and his running mate, Amrullah Saleh, has said so publicly.

What does the election mean for the peace process?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing, especially in the case of serious contestation over the results. But the key question for now is whether and when the U.S. intends to revive its own efforts to negotiate a settlement of the conflict, and in particular its talks with the Taliban.

The U.S. suspended the peace process in early September when President Donald Trump declined to move ahead with an initial U.S.-Taliban deal aimed at opening the way to broader talks among the Taliban, Afghan government and other Afghan power-brokers. The ball remains in Trump’s court: Taliban officials have told Crisis Group they are still open to resumption of the process. Senior Afghan officials said they would be willing to explore a diplomatic short-cut after the election process is completed, skipping the U.S.-Taliban deal and moving directly to intra-Afghan negotiations – but this has been a longstanding red line for the Taliban, who refuse to negotiate an Afghan political settlement without first resolving with the U.S. the question of foreign troop withdrawal. The Afghan government will be no better able to get the Taliban to erase that red line after the election, even if the announcement of results and reactions to them cause little or no political disturbance. Still, the Afghan government has renewed its commitment, at least rhetorically, to forging ahead with the peace process. On the day after the election, Ghani’s regional peace envoy Omar Daudzai tweeted optimistically that peace would be “accomplished within 2019”.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
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