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Afghan Leadership Transition and Pakistan

After a long stalemate of more than two months over the presidential election, Afghanistan has finally seen a peaceful democratic transition of leadership — the first in four decades in this war-ravaged country. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Dr Abdullah Abdullah are now at the helm as president and the first ever chief executive respectively. They both agreed to an alternative Agreement on establishment of a government of national unity. This auspicious development has brought an end to the “electoral crisis” which not only threw the country in the claws of political instability but also intensified the activities of the Afghan Taliban, especially in the east.

Harking a few months back, we come to know that more than seven million Afghan voters — 34 per cent of them women — braved inclement weather, Taliban threats and terror attacks to cast their votes on April 5, 2014. The process had to be repeated on June 14 for a second round run-off since no candidate could secure more than the mandatory 50 per cent of the vote. Despite sporadic assaults by miscreants, including one on June 6 in which Abdullah Abdullah narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, the second round took place. It raised the spectre of further uncertainty because Abdullah Abdullah, who fared marginally better than his rival in the first round, was declared the loser to Ashraf Ghani — the basic factor that made him challenge the results vociferously.

After months of bickering and accusations of poll rigging US Secretary of State John Kerry jumped into the fray announcing, on July 12, that all ballots would be audited under UN supervision. The UN commenced monitoring and recounting of the second-round of ballots on August 29.

In the backdrop of whispers of election fraud on both sides, on September 21, Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner and bitter wrangling was put to rest with both candidates announcing a unity government of power sharing. A former World Bank economist, Ashraf Ghani, who was backed by Pashtun tribes in the south and east of the country, is now the President of Afghanistan while Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who garnered the support of Tajiks and other ethnic groups living in the northern parts of the country, is now the Chief Executive of the country. Dr Abdullah is the former Afghan foreign minister, and a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter. Another interesting aspect is that the immutable historical tradition has again prevailed — the head of the country continues to be a Pashtun, this time Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

This was the end of bitter squabbling in a power struggle, one that had the potential of morphing into bloodier carnage than the kind that had followed the 1989 Soviet retreat and departure of US-led allies who created the Afghan resistance to rout the Red Army.

Post-Karzai Afghanistan faces enormous challenges. First and the foremost among those is that in the central government of Afghanistan, there are two centres of power, which makes a cordial and coherent working extremely difficult.

Secondly, the absence of sound state institutions, lack of reforms to harness the unbridled powers of the warlords, massive corruption and acute nepotism have badly shattered the capacity of any government to rule the highly fragmented Afghan society, let alone a coalition of opposing factions.

Thirdly, the Afghan national army is far from ready to meet the challenges of terror attacks and keeping the Taliban at bay, especially from the key southern province of Helmand, notorious for drug cultivation.

Fourthly, the Afghan economy is in the doldrums and, according to US media, the Afghan government is on the verge of bankruptcy, necessitating an emergency $537 million bailout just to pay salaries to its government employees. All social service projects started by allied countries may come to a standstill without further funding from pledged donors.

Karzai tried to divert attention from his government’s poor governance and far-reaching failures, and blamed the Pakistan Army and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) for sponsoring terror attacks in Afghanistan. This is hugely disappointing and unfortunate given the facts that Pakistan has hosted nearly five million Afghan refugees for over three decades, has backed an Afghan-led reconciliation process by facilitating the opening of a Doha office, releasing Taliban prisoners on the Afghan government’s request, conducted wide ranging military operations to eradicate terrorist safe havens from its soil and has avoided patronising any political candidate in Afghanistan’s government. Despite these positive endeavours, the Afghan government’s response has remained lukewarm.

During the 2014 Presidential election campaign’s television debates, all three contenders, including Zalmai Rassoul, accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban, claiming that Afghan sovereignty had to be maintained and that the Afghan government had to prevent Pakistan from destabilising Afghanistan through proxies. Security issues and coordination along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in recent years have been the stumbling blocks in relations between Islamabad and Kabul.

It should be noted that since the middle of June 2014 Pak Army has been conducting the Zarb-e-Azb military operation in North Waziristan. Scores of foreign fighters have fled to Khost and Paktika as a result of this operation. Pakistan incessantly requested Afghanistan to stop their incursions into Pakistan insomuch as till the last day before the announcement of the election results, Islamabad sent official letters to Kabul in order to protest against border crossings and the terrorist attacks committed by Afghan militants in the areas of North Waziristan.
This bleak milieu demands tightrope walking from Pakistan. It will have to not only welcome the new Afghan leadership, their choice of necessity, but hope that the fragile peace amongst the warring warlords does not break out into internecine warfare. However, Pakistan should continue its support for the Afghans in transit trade and all aspects of good neighbourliness.

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