x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Week in review: Afghan elections

With Afghanistan's presidential elections just over a week away, the commander of US forces conceded that the Taliban now have the upper hand as the war intensifies and fighting spreads into once safe areas. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's re-election is no longer assured as his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, presents an unexpectedly strong challenge that may precipitate a runoff contest. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal noted: "the Taliban are moving beyond their traditional strongholds in southern Afghanistan to threaten formerly stable areas in the north and west. "The militants are mounting sophisticated attacks that combine roadside bombs with ambushes by small teams of heavily armed militants, causing significant numbers of US fatalities, he said. July was the bloodiest month of the war for American and British forces, and 12 more American troops have already been killed in August. " 'It's a very aggressive enemy right now,' Gen McChrystal said in the interview Saturday at his office in a fortified Nato compound in Kabul. 'We've got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative. It's hard work.' "In an effort to regain the upper hand, Gen McChrystal said he will redeploy some troops currently in sparsely populated areas to areas with larger concentrations of Afghan civilians, while some of the 4,000 American troops still to arrive will be deployed to Kandahar." Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer based in Kabul, wrote in The Huffington Post: "In a week where security in Afghanistan seems headed anywhere but up (rocket strikes on Kabul, a Taliban frontal assault in Logar province today), the question on many a commentator's lips has been: where is this all going? "Some of the strongest analysis on stabilising Afghanistan recently has come from Andrew Exum who just took a break from his position at the Center for New American Security to act as some-time advisor to General McChrystal. I was struck by a comment he made in an interview on the World Politics Review: The fall of Kandahar is not going to look like the Taliban rolling down the streets in tanks. The fall of Kandahar is going to look like the Taliban steadily making ground with a campaign of fear and intimidation, and creating an environment in which the Afghan government can't operate in Kandahar, and Kandahar eventually becomes ideologically inhospitable to the government of Afghanistan, never mind Coalition forces. "I think Ex is dead on. But by that standard, I have to question: Has Kandahar already fallen?" Reuters reported: "US attempts to secure Afghanistan's most violent province have squeezed the insurgency into neighbouring areas, worsening security ahead of elections, US officers and Afghan officials say. "A major operation which saw thousands of US Marines fan out into parts of Helmand province has worsened security in neighbouring Farah to the west, they said. "The Helmand operation was one of the biggest ever undertaken by US Marines, but raised questions about whether insecurity had just been shifted to neighbouring areas." Reuters also reported: "Taliban fighters stormed a district police headquarters in once-quiet northern Afghanistan overnight, killing the police chief and two of his men, an official said, as violence spreads into once safe areas. "The attack, which led to a four-hour gunbattle into the early hours of Wednesday in Kunduz, is the latest in a wave of rising violence a week before an August 20 election which militants have vowed to disrupt." In Foreign Policy, Jean MacKenzie, alluding to the country's legendary capacity to bring down empires, suggested that Afghanistan should be called the "graveyard of expectations." Every time the future looks predictable it suddenly proves otherwise. The upcoming presidential election is no exception. Until just recently, the re-election of Hamid Karzai appeared to be a foregone conclusion but less than two weeks before the ballot there is no clear winner in sight. "What rocked Karzai's formerly sturdy campaign boat? To understand the exciting and confusing contest, the careful observer should pay attention to a trio of contenders and at least two governments - and be prepared for the unexpected. "A number of factors have contributed to the upset. First, there has been the surprisingly strong showing of Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister. He has marshaled his old Northern Alliance connections into an effective campaign team. Their tactics seem not to differ significantly from the bullying and buying-off favoured by his chief rival. But widespread anger and disappointment with the current regime in Kabul may well propel Abdullah into a strong second-place showing, robbing Karzai of what was thought to be an easy first-round win. (To win the presidency, a candidate must garner more than 50 per cent of the vote. If none of the 37 remaining candidates wins this majority, the top two go to a runoff election in early October.) "The second wild card in the deck has been the attitude of the United States. It is almost a cliché among Afghans that the next president will be chosen in Washington - after all, Karzai was hand-picked to head the Interim Government in 2001 by then-US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is Afghan-born. "Although US officials have stated publicly and repeatedly that they will neither support nor oppose any candidate, the conspiracy-happy Afghans have been watching for subtle signs like soothsayers examining chicken entrails. Rumors from diplomatic insiders have pointed strongly to a move away from Karzai in the Obama administration, with US heavyweights cozying up to his opposition. Karzai has been isolated: Diplomats hold direct talks with regional representatives, by-passing the authority of the central government and undercutting the president. Plus, those in the know say there is a plan afoot to form a coalition of leading candidates to oppose the incumbent. "Abdullah may well amass enough votes to spoil Karzai's immediate victory, but he is unlikely to squeak into the presidential palace without some help from the third-most powerful candidate, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai." Peter Graff, in an analysis for Reuters said: "Western media sometimes describe Karzai as unpopular - an easy assumption to make when you listen to Afghans complain about the rampant corruption, incompetence and nepotism in his government - but although they often bemoan the parlous state of the country, polls clearly show most like their leader. "A US-funded survey this week found two thirds of Afghans had a favourable opinion of him, with just 16 per cent having an unfavourable view. But it also predicted Karzai would win a disappointing 45 per cent of the vote and face a second round. "Despite the worsening war in the south and east, most of Afghanistan is at peace, its economy growing and its desperate poverty easing, if slowly for a country that has absorbed tens of billions of dollars in international aid. "A master coalition-builder, Karzai has won a formidable line-up of endorsements from regional bosses, many of whom may be expecting jobs in a future government to the alarm of Western diplomats keen to keep ex-guerrilla chiefs from carving up power." Meanwhile, The Times reported: "Supporters of President Karzai are preparing to rig voting in next week's presidential elections in unstable parts of Afghanistan's south as Taleban violence threatens to intimidate voters and hit turnout in his traditional support base. "The Times has talked to several witnesses whose reports will bolster suspicions within the international community that there will be electoral fraud across the south, some of it allegedly orchestrated by Mr Karzai's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. "Such irregularities could threaten the credibility of the election process and have led to threats of violent demonstrations in the north if Mr Karzai is thought to have stolen the vote."

pwoodward@thenational.ae