Afghanistan voted decisively for change in this month’s polls

Because the US had insisted on negotiating with Mullah Omar, a real fear existed among Afghans that the Taliban might return to political power, argues Shaukat Qadir

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Earlier this month, Afghanistan went to the polls to elect a new president and the country’s election commission has reported that approximately seven million votes were cast.

Considering that the Taliban had boycotted the election and threatened those who chose to vote, the turnout was impressive. The fact that female turnout averaged more than 30 per cent in rural areas is (almost) unbelievable. So, why did the Afghan peoples turn out in such numbers?

I have repeatedly pointed out that the American insistence on talking only to Mullah Omar was elevating him to a status he did not deserve. And that US interests, as well as Afghan interests, would be better served if America reached out to the leadership of all Afghan tribes across the ethnic divide.

I have also said that support for the Taliban has been on the rise over the past few years. But this fact was more a rejection of the inept Karzai government, rather than a proper show of support for the Taliban.

In the past year or more, other developments began to overshadow negotiations with the Taliban. Mr Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, BSA, won him some recognition.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s insistence on “non-interference” in Afghanistan and the US sidelining of Pakistan while negotiating with the Taliban, rendered Pakistan increasingly irrelevant to Afghanistan’s future.

But this fact, coupled with the US’s lack of success in negotiating with the Taliban, suddenly gave the Afghan people hope that this election might be converted into a very real opportunity; an opportunity for the Afghans to chart their own future, without interference from “interested” friends and enemies.

The fact that the US now wanted China to play a role in Afghanistan’s future served to reinforce this view. Being a neighbour, China has always been interested, but it has never been properly engaged in the process. It has never sought to design the mosaic of the political landscape in Afghanistan and, what is more, even if it wants to, it lacks the capability to influence events.

Perhaps the only “interested” friend that opted not to use its albeit limited influence was Pakistan. The rest – including US, Russia, Iran, and India – often acted at cross-purposes with each other and with Afghanistan.

All of the supposed front-runners in this election – Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, and Zalmai Rassoul – were, at one time or the other, beneficiaries of Mr Karzai’s rule. Indeed, Mr Rassoul was known to be the one Mr Karzai was backing.

Mr Abdullah has Pashtun blood in him. In fact, one of his female ancestors belonged to the same tribe as Mr Ahmedzai.

While his support base was essentially among the non-Pashtun minorities, it was expected that he would, as he did, also get some support from the Afghan Pashtun.

Mr Ahmadzai was reasonably expected to get the bulk of the majority Pashtun vote. Quite obviously, both are the real front-runners in this election.

While Mr Ahmadzai was quick to raise the issue of vote-rigging, there is a strong rumour that he and Mr Abdullah have an agreement that whoever wins might appoint the loser to be his deputy. There is another strong rumour that both have assured the US that they would sign the BSA.

It is against this background that the people of Afghanistan went to the polls on April 5.

Because the US had insisted on negotiating with Mullah Omar, a real fear existed among Afghans that the Taliban might return to political power.

They went to the polls this time to take advantage of the opportunity created for them to chart their own future. The choices available might not be the ones the Afghans really wanted, but it was their opportunity to tell the world who they did not want.

Since Pakistan posed no threat to them, they went to the polls, not just to declare their independence from the Taliban, but also to let Pakistan know that they had picked up the Taliban gauntlet.

They went to the polls to ensure that there would not be another US puppet to misrule them; nor is Mr Rassoul acceptable to them.

Even if he was not a US puppet, particularly since he is not rumoured to have assured the US of his signature on the BSA, Mr Karzai’s support made him unacceptable.

They went to the polls to ensure the defeat of these forces. They are prepared to live with either of the other two. They have shown the world their rejection of the Taliban and all external forces.

While many analysts fear unrest in Afghanistan if the future government is unable to negotiate with the Taliban, I hope that the future Afghan leadership understands the result of this poll and reach out to all Afghans, thus diluting adversarial influences.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer