The twin rocket attacks on the fortified presidential palace in Kabul on August 18, the suicide car bombing on a NATO convoy, and the spike in violence are a grim reminder of the security challenges facing nascent democratic Afghanistan as it goes to polls August 20 to elect a president as well as 34 provincial assemblies.
These elections are crucial for the Afghan people, the international community, and India. The popular rendezvous with democracy in a conflict-ravaged country also will provide the common people with a rare chance to express their voice in a debate which is largely dominated by Western commentators.
The achievements of the Hamid Karzai administration have not been commensurate with popular expectations. In his first term, Karzai disappointed his supporters, particularly the Pushtuns. There is widespread popular disillusionment arising at the spread of the Taliban-led insurgency, inadequate reconstruction process, mounting civilian casualties, the booming narcotics trade, insufficient security, and lagging political sector reforms -- with attendant continuation of the patronage system, corruption, and cronyism inhibiting the growth of institutions, a sine qua non for long term stability.
On the eve of the elections, there is no clear winner in sight. There are over 41 candidates in the fray, with diverse ethnic backgrounds and ideological orientations, ranging from pro-communist to pro-Taliban. If none of the candidates garners more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, the top two go to a 'runoff' election in early October.
According to opinion polls conducted by the US-based International Republican Institute and Gluvem Associates in July 2009, President Hamid Karzai led his rivals by a comfortable margin but fell short of the 50 percent mark necessary to avoid a 'run-off'.
As the incumbent, Karzai has made a strong bid for re-election and remains a prime contender for the top post. In his re-election bid, he is attempting to appeal to voters across ethnic and sectarian lines by co-opting potential opponents from diverse ethnic groups. His campaign has emphasised the need to expand his government's claimed achievements on social and economic issues.
Karzai has also maintained deep tribal and ethnic affiliations and is not new to brokering power deals. His political manoeuvrings aimed at an electoral victory include scattering the Opposition by winning over the tribal leaders and local commanders who control large swathes of rural Afghanistan. Such instruments are not alien in Afghan tribal cultures, where the jockeying for political power occurs by striking deals with local power brokers. Karzai thus has reached out to warlords, insurgent local commanders, and released drug-trade offenders.
In order to appeal to the Tajik constituency, Karzai has nominated a former commander of the Northern Alliance, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, as his vice presidential candidate. He has also obtained the endorsement of the Uzbek strongman, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has flown back to Afghanistan from Turkey after the Karzai government decided to defer his prosecution for assaulting a former ally.
Similarly, unconfirmed reports indicate that Karzai and Ashraf Ghani have stuck a deal in a move political consolidation of Pushtun votes, and a future power sharing arrangement is not an unlikely scenario.
Karzai's ratification of the controversial Shia Personal Status Law that condones marital rape has raised severe domestic and international criticism by advocates of women's rights but apparently is a move to garner support from the Shia and Hazara (Hazara are predominantly Shia Muslims, constituting about 10 percent of the population).
All these manoeuvrings of appealing to wide ethnic constituencies may have boosted Karzai's prospects for victory. However, the challenging security situation in the south and east Afghanistan might dent Karzai's Pushtun support base, with would-be supporters unable to vote in face of the insurgent campaign of intimidations and violent retribution.
Karzai's main rival is Dr Abdullah Abdullah, his former foreign minister and leader of the largest opposition block, the United National Front. Dr Abdullah, a half-Pashtun and half-Tajik ophthalmologist, draws heavily on his association with slain mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. He has campaigned by travelling extensively, addressing public rallies, and has buttressed his support base in north Afghanistan. Moreover, the relatively secure north could ensure more voters actually being able to vote vis-a-vis the difficult south for Karzai
Karzai's waning popularity -- he is expected to get less than the 54 percent vote he managed in 2004 -- may well propel Abdullah into a strong second-place. If Karzai falls below 50 percent, a second-round vote would result.
To win in the second round, either Karzai or Abdullah would require help from the third major contender, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Ghani is an American-educated Pashtun, who grew up in Kabul, studied in the US, and worked at the World Bank for 11 years. He is seen as a 'technocrat'. During his tenure as finance minister, he managed to create a stable monetary system and hence set the stage for investment and development.
Both Abdullah and Ghani have advanced a plank of 'hope and change'. Abdullah has proposed replacing the current system of government with a parliamentary system. Ghani has termed his campaign 'A New Beginning' and has pledged to provide an alternative to 'years of misrule.' His promises include a handbook for Western combat troops' conduct and a road map for their eventual exit.
The list of candidates also includes a 'dark horse' -- Ramazan Bashardost -- an ethnic Hazara, who according to a recent poll is predicted to garner as much as 10 percent of the vote (Bashardost is expected to get more votes than Ghani, votes that would otherwise go to Karzai). He has eschewed the powerful patronage networks and has maintained no ties to the former mujahedeen warlords. His anti-corruption plank and critique of international nongovernmental oraganisations' role in reconstruction of Afghanistan has won him much appreciation from the locals. Bashardost will play the role of a 'power broker' if the election enters a 'run off'.
US officials have maintained a public stance of not identifying with any particular candidate, for the future president's legitimacy would largely be undermined if the elections were to appear 'fixed'. The elections, nonetheless, remain a test of the Af-Pak strategy of the Obama administration, given that the troop surge was intended to enable the civilians in the southern and eastern part of the country to participate in the election process.
Simultaneously, such mobilisation is intended as a springboard to rolling back the spread of the Taliban led insurgency. A credibly elected Afghan president and his future performance are thus critical to an eventual US exit plan from that country.
Afghanistan's major woes come from neighbouring Pakistan, where the Taliban leaders have found sanctuaries. The recent killing of Behtullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, has sent this group into disarray. The Taliban is now more focussed on the Afghan elections, and the spike in violence in that country is an indicator. Pakistan, though making some welcome moves to shore up moderation at home, remains committed to a strategy of seeking more pro-Taliban forces in the Afghan government to build Islamabad's leverage.
Thus, as violence escalates, the main Afghan political contenders might have to consider seriously accommodating or negotiating with at least reconcilable elements of the insurgency. Karzai has already made such moves, though the other three contenders are not yet open to any such negotiations.
India has a huge interest in stabilising Afghanistan. While it has not publicly identified with any one particular candidate, it has provided substantial support to the building of democratic institutions. Officially, it has been a close ally of Karzai, while ample goodwill exists for Dr Abdullah. Ultimately, what would serve New Delhi best is a relatively peaceful election that places in office a legitimate government committed to bringing stability and development to conflict ridden Afghanistan.