The Afghan Political Landscape

Spearhead Analysis – 01.02.2019

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The Afghan political landscape is undergoing major shifts- it is predicted that the upcoming months may foresee heightened political contentions. In the recent updates, the Afghan presidential elections have been postponed from its initial scheduled dates in April 2019 to July 2019. This period will be highly critical as Afghanistan will conduct four major polls simultaneously, namely: the presidential elections, the provincial elections, district council elections, parliamentary elections in Ghazni.

Reportedly, the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC) has stated that the delay in the presidential polls is to ensure a better organized election. At the moment, various security concerns, budget issues, logistics issues and weather conditions are said to be hampering smooth and fair elections.

The announcement of delayed polls has heighted pressures internally on Ghani Administration- many are of the view that the president along with international support played a role in delaying of the elections. Political forces such as: The Grand National Coalition, Mehwar-e Mardom, the Independent Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of the Constitution- called the IEC’s decision a violation of the constitution because the presidential term expires on 22 May 2019. On the other hand, the political opposition is in favor of necessary electoral reforms prior to the upcoming election season, but they do not support the continuation of Ghani’s tenure after 22 May 2019. Some possible suggested interim setups entail 1) continuation of the government, but with a reduction in the president’s authorities, 2) an interim government, or 3) the president stepping down and the chief justice taking over the affairs of the state.

The current pre-poll landscape:

So far, the prominent presidential candidates include:  Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, Hanif Atmar, Rahmatullah Nabil, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The political landscape is witnessing new divides and reformations of alliances. Reportedly, The Jamiat-I- Islami is highly divided amidst the presidential race- currently the Jamiat strongmen such as Atta Mohammad Noor, Ismail Khan, Sattar Murad, and Bismillah Mohammadi, announced their support for Hanif Atmar with Younus Qanooni and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq included in his electoral ticket as First Vice and Second Vice Presidents.

Some members of the Jamiat – such as Salahuddin Rabbani are supporting Abdullah Abdullah, while a small segment is lending support to Ahmad Wali Massoud.

It is predicted that the upcoming elections would be challenging for Ghani- due to a reduction of support from his former supporters. He faces stiff competition from the opposition parties who have joined forces under the umbrella of Grand National Coalition of Afghanistan and from candidates such as Hanif Atmar. It is believed that Ghani has two possible strategies for victory – either to accelerate the peace talks and build an inclusive political setup with the Taliban or carve out a coalition with Atmar- both are viewed as challenging outcomes for now.

Hanif Atmar is emerging as a strong candidate because he has managed to harness backing of major ethnic groups and leading political strongmen and technocrats throughout the country and has also amassed significant international support. Currently, the ethnic divides are said to be dominating the Afghan political arena. However, it is believed that Atmar’s victory may assuage ethnic rifts due to Atmar’s inclination towards creating a Prime Minister’s office , thereby diluting the presidential powers and work towards decentralization of power to cater to non Pasthun ethnic groups- but some predict that decentralization may not materialize smoothly even if Atmar wins, due to the overwhelming Pasthun majority.

The upcoming Presidential Elections in Afghanistan are likely to face several challenges, due to deteriorating security conditions, deep ethnic divides, polarized political landscape and doubts regarding the fairness of the elections.

The Trump administration on its part has projected its interest in further force reduction and appears to be seeking some form of a political agreement with the Afghan Taliban prior to the upcoming elections. Reportedly, the recent round of talks indicates some agreement on the issue of US presence in Afghanistan in exchange of direct Taliban and Afghan Government talks. However, it needs to be seen where the Afghan Taliban would settle in negotiations amidst their seeming position of strength. It also needs to be seen how the political divides within Afghanistan would take shape and impact the peace talks. If a new political dispensation does emerge in the near future- its stability may require international impetus, especially since Afghanistan continues to grapple with security crisis, in-fighting , terrorism and a fragile security apparatus.

A significant factor could be the trajectory and possible success of the US-Taliban talks. There is no doubt that Zalmay Khalilzad has made progress but so far the Taliban are averse to direct talks with the current Afghan government. President Ghani and his team could be the sacrificial goats if they continue to insist on talks with Taliban and impede US-Taliban talks. Russia has now jumped in and is sponsoring talks between anti Ghani leaders and the Taliban. This adds credence to a future scenario sans Ghani and his team. One way to ensure the progression of the US-Taliban talks and the move towards elections is to develop consensus with the Taliban on talks between them and a selected group of parliamentarians or other political figures. This could work because sensing a political future and eventual domination of the political scene the Taliban have moderated their outlook and direction in policies. Their first step seems to be to become a significant part of the political landscape. In any case the Taliban are now being seen as the center of gravity in Afghanistan and they know this.