2008 is a pivotal year in the development of the Afghan state: the situation has reached a classic decision point. The Taliban are entrenched in the South, running parallel governments in several districts and controlling the majority of secondary roads. The extent of the challenges facing the country was brought into sharp focus by the bombing of the Serena Hotel in Kabul on 14 January. Should this event prove part of a consolidated drive by militants to engage in asymmetric attacks upon high profile, ‘soft’ Western civilian targets in the capital, then the insurgency will have entered a new and dangerous phase.
The inability of domestic and international actors to counter the entrenchment of the insurgency in Afghanistan is deeply troubling, and the failure of NATO’s political masters to address the realities of the security situation in Afghanistan has taken the country and the Karzai government to a precipice.
The international community has invested significant time and money in President Karzai and his government. Unfortunately, these efforts may prove fruitless if they do not move quickly to stabilise the south and Karzai’s political support base. Assistance is clearly needed on a number of security, developmental and counter-narcotics measures required to steer the country back on course.
Elections due, but security lacking
Under Article 61 of the Constitution, President Karzai’s presidential tenure must end on 22 May 2009, with elections held 30-60 days prior. This gives the president just over 400 days in office to accomplish his first term goals and position himself strongly before going to the polls.
The lack of security nationwide could make the aspiration to hold elections a wholly unachievable one; indeed, if the current security situation in the South does not improve dramatically there is no possibility of holding the next presidential election.
The very act of casting a vote is fraught with danger in many areas, and would be impossible in some southern and eastern districts. The Taliban have pledged to bring widespread disruption to the elections, and given the extent of the movement’s geographic spread, this could spell disaster for the entire process. The scenes of disciplined queues of Afghans waiting patiently to vote in October 2004 will be difficult to replicate in 2009.
The country’s ability to hold free and fair elections is a key benchmark of its progress. Only a significant ramping-up of indigenous and international forces can start to provide a suitably benign security environment. NATO-ISAF is presently overstretched fighting a tenacious insurgency, and is hampered by a lack of political combined will (in particular from those not committing sufficient troops to Southern Afghanistan). Only the four countries with troops actually fighting in the South – the US, Canada, Netherlands and UK – are making the necessary contributions. Meanwhile, the Afghan army remains in a state of transition, and is unable to take a lead without substantial support from international forces.
So the task of securing elections must fall elsewhere. It was the United Nations Security Council that initially gave approval for the US to launch a military action in Afghanistan, and eventually delegated that responsibility to NATO. NATO is in a political logjam in responding to the actual realities of the situation, and is either unable or unwilling to respond properly.
The UN and the Security Council must address this failure and bring the issue of stabilising Afghanistan and the Karzai government back to the UN table, and broaden the forces deployed in the country. This it can do through the deployment of member-states’ forces to take the lead on election security within an expanded ‘NATO Plus’ international force. Given the glacial pace of decision-making in the UN, the body needs to act with urgency when looking at a fresh approach to Afghanistan, given that the presidential elections are just over a year away.
The seed of democracy has clearly been sown in Afghanistan. Interviews carried out by ICOS in southern Afghanistan throughout January 2008 revealed a pleasing lack of concern for a president’s ethnicity, a willingness to countenance a female candidate, and an overall desire to engage in the country’s democratic discourse.
Unfortunately, at a federal political level, old ethnic rivalries are proving tough to break. Where other minorities will vote en mass for their unchallenged leader (Uzbeks have Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Shia Hazaras Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq), the key challenge for Tajiks is their ability to back one candidate. Should the right man emerge, then Karzai can expect a tough campaign.
The country’s modern history is littered with a number of self-interested figures that have intermittently sought to control the reins of power at the cost of their rivals. There are indicators that such forces are once again aligning themselves to undermine the president in 2008 with the aim of ensuring his defeat at 2009’s poll.
A way forward
Karzai is entering a critical stage of his presidency. As parliamentary enemies old and new start to coalesce against him, and the security situation throughout Afghanistan shows little sign of improvement, it is crucial that he starts to inch his way towards controlling the state, initiating a progressive programme of change in the process.
He must make the link, however slight, between the country’s outlying provinces and the seat of government, although it must be recognised that the barriers preventing his ability to forge this link are perhaps more substantial in Afghanistan than in any other state in the world.