- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 3, 2014

Amid Taliban threats of violence, Afghans will vote Saturday for a new president in an election that not only will begin their country’s first democratic transition of power but also may provide clarity about how many U.S. and foreign troops will remain in their war-torn nation after this year.

A clear winner among the eight presidential candidates is not anticipated, and a runoff election is expected to pit two of the three front-runners — Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmay Rassoul — against one another. The Afghan constitution barred President Hamid Karzai from seeking a third term.

Each of the front-runners has served in Mr. Karzai’s government and is well-known in Washington.

Mr. Abdullah, who is of Tajik and Pashtun heritage, served as foreign minister before challenging Mr. Karzai for the presidency in 2009. That election went to a second round, which Mr. Abdullah quit after claiming widespread fraud.

Mr. Ghani, a Pashtun, served as finance minister from 2002 to 2004. He studied at Columbia University and has worked at the World Bank.

Mr. Rassoul, a Pashtun, served as foreign minister from January 2010 to October 2013. He has been endorsed by the president’s brother Qayyum Karzai, who dropped out of the contest in March.

The Karzais’ political machinery eventually will propel Mr. Rassoul to the presidency, predicts Sarah Chayes, a senior associate in the South Asia and Democracy and Rule of Law programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“We should significantly lower our expectations of transition and legitimacy,” she said.

“There may be somebody else whose name is on the highest office, but in terms of who really has their hands on the levers of power, I think that it will look much more similar to what we have now than most people expect,” Ms. Chayes said, adding that Mr. Karzai likely will continue to be a key player in Afghan politics.

Bilateral security deal

As Afghans prepare to vote, the U.S.-led international coalition is preparing to leave after having invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to topple the Taliban regime that sheltered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Despite a ferocious Taliban campaign to disrupt voting, Afghans have turned out in large numbers in support of their candidates in presidential and provincial elections. But the violence has thrust security concerns front and center.

As national forces struggle to stand on their own, many Afghans still look to the U.S. to guarantee their security. All foreign combat forces are expected to leave the country by the end of the year.

Mr. Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement he negotiated with the Obama administration that would allow several thousand U.S. and NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan as advisers and counterterrorism specialists after combat troops withdraw. This has raised the possibility of the “zero option,” in which no international troops would be in Afghanistan after this year.

All of the major presidential candidates have said they will sign the security agreement. What is unclear is whether they will show the same enthusiasm once in office.

“I wouldn’t take anyone’s promises at face value, and I think it really depends on what were the factors that caused Karzai not to sign it,” said Ms. Chayes, who served as special adviser to Navy Adm. Mike Mullen when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“If it is a Karzai proxy who becomes the next president, I don’t think you’re guaranteed to have a signed [agreement],” she said. “I think, fundamentally, the U.S.-Afghan relationship is basically over for all intents and purposes. A [security agreement] or not doesn’t make that much difference. I do not think there is a stomach in this country for significant, ongoing intertwining with Afghanistan.”

All U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011 after Washington and Baghdad failed to reach a security deal. Since then, Iraq has descended into increasing sectarian violence.

Westerners flee

The U.S.-Afghan relationship has been roiled by disagreements over U.S. drone strikes and Mr. Karzai’s public criticism of the international coalition. The Obama administration, facing crises in the Arab world and Ukraine, also has become less engaged in Afghanistan.

The next Afghan government will want a stable relationship with the West, especially the U.S., said Shahmahmood Miakhel, the Kabul-based country director for the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“But the future relationship will depend on credibility of the government to fight corruption and improve security and governance in the country,” Mr. Miakhel said.

Meanwhile, some international election staffers have left Afghanistan as a result of the Taliban’s terrorism campaign. For some, the turning point came March 20, when gunmen attacked the Serena Hotel in Kabul and killed nine people, including Luis Maria Duarte, a Paraguayan election observer with the National Democratic Institute.

The group withdrew all 15 of its staff who were working on the election program in Afghanistan, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe withdrew its 15-member support team before sending back about half to assist Afghan election authorities.

“It certainly is disappointing that the escalation in the violence has made it essentially impossible for internationals to play a meaningful role in observing the election,” said Peter Manikas, director for Asia programs at the National Democratic Institute, “but it was never the intention of the international community to deploy comprehensive election delegations because of the security situation.”

Security concerns have hindered the work of OSCE staff in Afghanistan, said Thomas Rymer, a spokesman for the organization’s office for democratic institutions and human rights. “As for the other international organizations present in Afghanistan to observe the elections, I can’t see how the security situation wouldn’t be having a negative effect on their efforts.”

Taliban campaign ‘failing’

Some candidates, including Mr. Abdullah, have raised concerns about election fraud.

A combination of stuffed ballot boxes, polling locations where they’re not supposed to be, less oversight and much less international attention create a “recipe for a rigged outcome,” Ms. Chayes said.

But Mr. Manikas, who this week returned from a trip to Afghanistan, said he didn’t think the process has been manipulated. Afghanistan is better prepared for the vote than it was in 2009, he said.

The Taliban’s campaign of violence, meanwhile, appears to have done little to dent Afghans’ enthusiasm in the run-up to the election. Thousands have packed political rallies, and televised debates have drawn large audiences.

“The Taliban’s strategy is failing,” said Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. “Not only is it not intimidating the Afghan population, but it has created a sense of defiance across the country.”

Asila Wardak, an Afghan diplomat based in New York, said the Taliban threat may not suppress voter turnout, but “cultural barriers” will make it harder for women in rural areas to vote.

Under the Taliban, women were barred from jobs. Now, three female candidates are running for vice president.

Ms. Wardak cites this as an example of the gains women have made over the past decade. But women still face an uphill battle, she said.

She was disappointed that none of the candidates has mentioned proposals to empower women.

“It makes it hard for women,” Ms. Wardak said. “For whom will they vote?”

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