Afghanistan at the crossroads
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After an election campaign marred by many episodes of violence, the country is preparing for a chaotic post-electoral phase that could favour the US intention to leave the country permanently, although Moscow's presence may convince Trump to hold back from a complete withdrawal of his troops

See our 2018 Elections Special

 

Parliamentary elections took place in Afghanistan on October 20 and 21. The poll, which had been postponed for three years, could mark the future of the fragile local institutions. Among the unknowns of this election are the allegations of corruption and the issue of the withdrawal of US troops currently in the country, which president Donald Trump has been considering for some time. It was a general rehearsal for the presidential elections set for next year, which could challenge the balance within the bloc that supports the coalition behind the existing government of national unity, strengthening the warlords. The final results will be announced by December. Nine million Afghans were called to the polls to choose from 2,500 candidates. Several explosions hit polling stations while voting was in progress, causing the death of 36 civilians, military personnel and scrutineers in the capital Kabul. According to interior minister, Wais Barmak, there were 192 attacks across the country. At least 60 arrests have been made in recent days of people charged with electoral fraud. Voting operations were delayed for technical reasons. Many analysts described the decision of at least three million voters to go to the polls on the first day of voting, thus ensuring a good turnout, particularly in Kabul, Herat, Daykundi and Nangarhar, as an “act of courage”. Voting operations were delayed in particular in the province of Kandahar, following the assassination, a few days before polling stations opened, of the chief of police, general Abdul Raziq, in an attack claimed by the Taliban.

A troubled election campaign

Three attacks marked the election campaign. The most serious took place on October 13, when a bomb exploded during an election rally, causing many victims and dozens of injuries. The attack took place during an election gathering for Nazifa Yousofi Bek, one of the female candidates, in Rustaq, a district in the province of Tahkar, in the north of the country. There has not been any specific claim for the attack. Prior to the elections, the Taliban declared that they intended to boycott the voting. The Afghan authorities pointed the finger at Islamic State (ISIS), which is active in the country and has perpetrated many of the attacks in recent months. The Taliban, which is main group opposing the Ashraf Ghani government, control a vast swathe of the country. Among the people killed in the attack was Abdul Jabar Qahraman, one of the ten candidates murdered during the two-month election campaign, including one of the female candidates, while a further two were kidnapped and four injured. A communiqué issued by the Taliban refers to the assassination of Qahraman. The October election was also marked by a large number of female candidates: 417 in total, which is the highest number in recent years and a clear sign of a breakthrough in the obstruction from the more conservative figures to the presence of women in public life.

Balances following the vote

Although the Afghan parliament has limited power, parliamentarians benefit from easier access to government offices and international funding. The Taliban have attacked previous elections, targeting both individual candidates and rallies or meetings during election campaigns, with the aim of demonstrating the weakness of the central government. International monitoring of election campaigns has been limited, and so has the presence of troops across the country compared to elections in 2009, 2010 and 2014. On the eve of polling day, the Afghan government announced the deployment of 54,000 security forces to protect polling stations. At least 2,000 of these were considered to be at risk of attack. There have been many allegations of fraud in several provinces where the number of registered voters was, in some cases, higher than the number of residents. The risk is that young parliamentarians may have only limited space for manoeuvre, which is what happened in 2014, when the authorities decided that the electoral process had been irregular, which required mediation by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State at the time, to avoid an institutional clash. The likelihood of an increased Russian role in the country, which has been torn apart by conflict, in the event of a withdrawal of US troops, has held back the much-advocated decision by the US to pull out of the country completely. At the beginning of October, Italian defence minister Elisabetta Trenta announced that a hundred Italian soldiers in the country would return to Italy by October 31. In the meantime, attempts are continuing to bring Taliban fighters who are most open to dialog to the negotiating table. This was at the center of talks between the US envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and a delegation of three Taliban emissaries in Qatar. The goal of the US is to mediate between the government and the rebels, with the aim of convincing the Taliban to negotiate.