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Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Report 256 / Asia

Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition

To contain a growing, increasingly confident insurgency as NATO troops withdraw, Afghanistan needs continued international support, including military, and the new government in Kabul will need to reinvigorate the state’s commitment to the rule of law.
 

Executive Summary

The war in Afghanistan entered a new phase in 2013. It now is increasingly a contest between the insurgents and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Many within and outside the government are more optimistic about stability in the wake of a relatively successful first round of presidential elections on 5 April 2014. However, any euphoria should be tempered by a realistic assessment of the security challenges that President Karzai’s successor will face in the transitional period of 2014-2015. Kabul may find these challenges difficult to overcome without significant and sustained international security, political and economic support.

The overall trend is one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks. Ongoing withdrawals of international soldiers have generally coincided with a deterioration of Kabul’s reach in outlying districts. The insurgents have failed to capture major towns and cities, and some areas have experienced more peace and stability in the absence of international troops. Yet, the increasing confidence of the insurgents, as evidenced by their ability to assemble bigger formations for assaults, reduces the chances for meaningful national-level peace talks in 2014-2015.

A close examination of four provinces – Faryab, Kunar, Paktia and Kandahar – reveals underlying factors that may aggravate the conflict in the short term. Historical feuds and unresolved grievances are worsening after having been, in some cases, temporarily contained by the presence of international troops. In Faryab, these are largely ethnic tensions; in Kandahar they are mostly tribal; but in all transitional areas there is a variety of unfinished business that may result in further violence post-2014. Similarly, clashes among pro-government actors may become more frequent, as predicted by local interlocutors after recent skirmishing between government forces in Paktia. The situation in Kandahar also illustrates the way mistreatment of Afghans at the hands of their own security forces, operating with less supervision from foreign troops, breeds resentment that feeds the insurgency. Finally, despite its rhetoric, Pakistan has not reduced safe havens and other support for the insurgency, while Afghanistan’s hostile responses – especially in Kandahar and Kunar – risk worsening cross-border relations.

None of these trends mean that Afghanistan is doomed to repeat the post-Soviet state collapse of the early 1990s, particularly if there is continued and robust international support. In fact, Afghan forces suffered record casualties in 2013 and retreated from some locations in the face of rising insurgency but maintained the tempo of their operations in most parts of the country. Afghanistan still has no shortage of young men joining the ANSF, offsetting the rising number of those who opt to leave them or abandon their posts. The government remains capable of moving supplies along highways to urban centres. ANSF cohesiveness, or lack of it, may prove decisive in the coming years, and Paktia notwithstanding, only minor reports emerged in 2013 of Afghan units fighting each other. As long as donors remain willing to pay their salaries, the sheer numbers of Afghan security personnel – possibly in the 370,000 range today – are a formidable obstacle to large-scale strategic gains by the insurgents.

That will not stop the Taliban and other insurgent groups from pushing for such gains, however. Despite a short-lived gesture toward peace negotiations in Doha, the insurgents’ behaviour in places where the foreign troops have withdrawn shows no inclination to slow the pace of fighting. They are blocking roads, capturing rural territory and trying to overwhelm district administration centres. With less risk of attack from international forces, they are massing bigger groups of fighters and getting into an increasing number of face-to-face ground engagements with Afghan security personnel, some of which drag on for weeks. The rising attacks show that the insurgents are able to motivate their fighters in the absence of foreign troops, shifting their rhetoric from calls to resist infidel occupation to a new emphasis on confronting the “puppets” or “betrayers of Islam” in the government. The emerging prominence of splinter groups such as Mahaz-e-Fedayeen is a further indication the insurgency will not lack ferocity in the coming years.

For the first time, the insurgents inflicted almost as many casualties on Afghan security forces in 2013 as they suffered themselves, and several accounts of battles in remote districts suggested the sides were nearly matched in strength. There are concerns that the balance could tip in favour of the insurgency, particularly in some rural locations, as foreign troops continue leaving. President Karzai has refused to conclude agreements with the U.S. and NATO that would keep a relatively modest presence of international troops after December 2014. The two presidential runoff candidates have vowed to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which would in turn allow for a NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). While retaining a contingent of foreign soldiers would not be sufficient on its own to keep the insurgency at bay, its absence could prove extremely problematic. The ANSF still needs support from international forces, and signing a BSA and a SOFA would likely have knock-on effects, sending an important signal of commitment at a fragile time, thus encouraging ongoing financial, developmental and diplomatic support.

With or without backup from international forces, the Afghan government will need more helicopters, armoured vehicles, and logistical support to accomplish that limited objective. Such additional military tools would also permit the government to rely increasingly on the relatively well-disciplined Afghan army rather than forcing it to turn to irregular forces that have a dismal record of harming civilians.

Certainly, the future of the Afghan government depends primarily on its own behaviour: its commitment to the rule of law, anti-corruption measures and other aspects of governance must demonstrate its concern for the well-being of all Afghans. However, responsibility also rests with the international community; its patchy efforts over a dozen years to bring peace and stability must now be followed not with apathy, but with renewed commitment.

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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