Fears for Security Weigh on Election Hopes
Fears for Security Weigh on Election Hopes
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Op-Ed / Asia

Fears for Security Weigh on Election Hopes

A figure clad in the latest-fashion bronze-colored burka slipped into our guesthouse in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. One of 328 brave women who have put their names forward for the country's coming parliamentary elections, Rona cannot show her face on the streets of this conservative town. Sipping green tea, she explained her desire to take part in this historic poll and "serve the people" - along with the difficulties of the Afghan campaign trail.

There is her burka, making face recognition tricky in an election where photographs will appear on the ballot to aid illiterate voters. Then there's the fact that unlike men, she cannot hold public meetings and must seek votes individual by individual.

But looming over it all are the security fears. Hopes that last year's euphoric presidential elections, which Hamid Karzai took by a landslide, would mean an end to the Taliban have now evaporated. The surrounding countryside is largely a no-go area for all candidates. Nearly all Rona's campaigning will be restricted to the city center.

After a winter lull, it has been a bloody summer in the Taliban heartland, the southern and eastern regions bordering Pakistan. The recent downing of a U.S. helicopter, killing all 16 soldiers on board, was an example of the insurgents' increasing bravado.

Less reported abroad have been the assassination of four pro-government clerics, a suicide bombing in the heart of Kandahar killing at least 30 people, the killing of 10 policemen - six of them beheaded. This against a backdrop of the largest battles and ambushes since the Taliban were overthrown, showing that a determined insurgency is not as easily defeated as early propaganda suggested.

Much of the violence now appears directly aimed at the elections and interrupting vital preparations including civic education and voter registration. Three poll workers have been killed, the staff at one voter registration booth abducted (though later released unharmed) and another center bombed. According to Kofi Annan's representative in Kabul, nearly all the candidates in Zabul Province are living under protection or fleeing to neighbouring regions.

Nearly all these attacks are in border regions with widespread reports of insurgents then fleeing to seek the refuge an international border provides. Pakistan, long the international sponsor of the Taliban before loudly joining the "war on terror," is apparently back to its old tricks, allowing militants on its turf an outlet in Afghanistan rather than tackling them head on. In the Pakistan province of Balochistan, Taliban are now to be seen openly walking the streets.

The United Nations has weighed in with a carefully worded statement pointing to the benefits of co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan before the last election. However, with relations between the two countries probably at the lowest in the past three years, such cooperation will not happen without continually applied international pressure.

It can be done. Pakistan did undertake a massive effort for the presidential poll, sealing the long remote border. For now, brave election workers are determinedly pressing ahead with preparations for the poll on Sept. 18. Civic educators are reaching out to a largely illiterate population in all but four districts.

These polls may not be receiving the international attention of the presidential election, but they are just as vital in securing Afghanistan's future. Too many of Afghanistan's eggs are currently placed in the basket of one man: Karzai. A parliament provides for a greater breadth of voices, all the more essential in a land emerging from a quarter-century of war, both caused by and exacerbating ethnic, regional, linguistic and sectarian divides.

Afghans' enthusiasm for participation is still there, although tempered somewhat by disappointment at the pace of redevelopment. Targeted violence could still at the very least call into question the poll's mandate if large amounts of voters were driven away.

The international community needs to provide support to ensure the success of these elections and the continuing institutionalization of democracy. Most urgently, this means pressure on Pakistan to stop cross-border infiltration.

Money too. Nearly a third of a $148 million election budget is yet to be found two months out from election day. Those tasked with seeking such funds report that much donor interest has already moved on to Iraq and the tsunami-hit nations.

Afghanistan is no Iraq, but the world has seen the results of previously allowing the state to wither. Urgent steps are needed now to ensure that democracy can truly take root and guarantee the currently burka-clad women a real voice in future.

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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