In Afghanistan, a lot could change when Abdullah Abdullah becomes president, and that includes Afghanistan’s recent pro-Western orientation.
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah is escorted by his bodyguards after an election campaign rally in Paghman district of Kabul on June 9, 2014. Photo: Reuters
In Afghanistan, the election campaign is coming to an end. This should become a landmark event – the country will change not only its president, but also, probably, even the ruling elite. It is already virtually certain that the opposition candidate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah will come out victorious – in the first round, he received 45 percent of the votes, well ahead of all the other candidates.
His victory was imminent after he formed a coalition with Zalmai Rassoul, who enjoyed, as it was believed, the support of the ruling clan of President Hamid Karzai. The only rival of Abdullah making it to the second round was Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (31.5 percent), and he lost his last chance to win after the coalition agreement was signed. This made the remainder of the presidential campaign almost a formality.
Terror attack spurs trouble during the elections
However, the final voting, which was due to come to an anti-climactic finish by mid-June, was nearly derailed by a terrorist attack. On June 5, in one of the districts of Kabul, an explosion destroyed a group of cars belonging to the staff of Abdullah, in one of which was the candidate himself, who was traveling together with Rassoul.
Both politicians survived without injuries, although one of the bodyguards was killed and five were wounded. Quite naturally, many are wondering: Who is behind this attempt to so dramatically change the course of the campaign?
During the press conference given after the attack, Dr. Abdullah said that the cars were blown up by roadside mines. In other words, this could have been a random explosion, as the Taliban militants often mine the roads, causing random explosions when civilian vehicles pass over them.
However, eyewitnesses are claiming that this time the attack was carried out by suicide bombers. The Taliban has not yet taken formal responsibility for the attack, but during the election campaign, they repeatedly attacked the supporters of Abdullah.
Nevertheless, some experts do not rule out that what happened is not just an ordinary terrorist attack, but also an attempt to prevent a change in the ruling elite, which Abdullah’s victory threatens. Possibly involved in this attack were not only terrorists, but also some official political figures.
What changes can the presidential frontrunner implement?
The problem is that the future president is half-Tajik in origin, while most of the ruling elite are ethnic Pashtuns. Moreover, the political biography of Dr. Abdullah is closely associated with the anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance”, in which the greatest role was played by the warlords of national minorities in Afghanistan, including the Tajiks.
Karzai did not pursue demonstrative discrimination against the non-Pashtun population, whose representatives were even allowed into the country’s political elite, yet the Pashtuns, representing about 40 percent of the population, nevertheless maintained their leading positions.
However, this situation could change after the victory of Abdullah, considering the geography of his support. After the first round, he received about 80 percent of the votes in Tajik Panjshir, nearly 68 percent of the votes in Bamiyan, and 65 percent in Badakhshan.
In Pashtun Kandahar, he gathered only about 10 percent of the votes, yielding to Ahmadzai, and in the southeastern Khost – he was not able to surpass the 5 percent barrier. Of course, it would be a mistake to assess the political struggle in Afghanistan as only an inter-ethnic confrontation, but for any politician, it is always the most logical to rely on a loyal electorate and choose personnel for public service from among them.
Naturally, Abdullah faces understandable mistrust from the conservative Pashtun nationalists, as well as representatives of the current ruling elite, which is well aware of the inevitability of a large-scale reshuffle after he comes to power.
It is likely that Karzai and his entourage have already received assurances that there would be no repressions or attempts to uncover high-profile corruption scandals of the past president, including the case of the Kabul Bank. However, not all can count on such guarantees.
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah (R) speaks as security personnel keep watch during an election campaign rally in Paghman district of Kabul on June 9, 2014. Photo: Reuters
A new foreign policy agenda for the new president
International problems also must not be forgotten. It is almost certain that the new president will be forced to change something in the country’s relations with foreign partners, because the year 2014 is not only a time of presidential elections, but also the year in which the greater part of foreign troops will leave the country, something that will inevitably change the balance of power in Afghanistan.
Of course, Abdullah will not fully drop cooperation with the United States, yet nevertheless, he will inevitably intensify dialogue with other partners, including China, India and Russia.
Ahmadzai adheres to a much more rigid pro-American stance, which has led some analysts to call him an unmistakable protégé of the United States and Turkey. He stood out among all the other candidates in publicly talking about his readiness to sign a strategic cooperation agreement with Washington, and he is known for his friendly relations with some members of the U.S. Republican Party.
Dr. Abdullah is much more cautious in his public assessments and contacts. One can assume that he will show less flexibility on the issue of a new agreement with the United States. In particular, the new president of Afghanistan may refuse to provide extraterritorial status to American military bases and their staff, something that Washington has been demanding.
U.S. and NATO will retain their influence on Kabul, due to the large amounts of financial aid on which the national budget depends, but the real question is: How hard will the new president work on finding an alternative to this source of financing? In Afghan society, there is a very strong anti-American sentiment, and therefore, there is a demand for closer ties with other countries, and even support for their confrontations with the United States.
Already the incumbent President Karzai pointedly declined to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, and before that, he made a loud statement in support of Russia’s position on “the Crimean issue,” which was severely condemned by the Western partners of Afghanistan.
It is likely that the new president will continue these “controlled freezes” in relations with Washington, which might be best considered as a tool to pressure the U.S. into granting preferential treatment.
Naturally, in Afghanistan and beyond its borders, there are supporters of close cooperation with the United States, who may wish to replace Abdullah by a more loyal candidate. In particular, we can mention some companies that make good money from servicing U.S. military bases in the country, which stand to lose a lot upon a change of policy.
We should also mention here that the security services of a number of companies, engaged in transportation in the interest of the international forces, paid tributes to Taliban field commanders to ensure the safety of their goods.
Finally, we should not forget about Pakistan, whose leaders might be upset with Abdullah’s close contacts with New Delhi. Representatives of Islamabad may fear the formation of an Anti-Pakistan Alliance of Afghanistan and India under the new president, especially given the fact that current relations with Kabul are not too good. Already, many in Afghanistan are willing to openly accuse Pakistani intelligence of attempts to influence the political process through acts of terrorism.
Of course, it would be a mistake to immediately seek, in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on the future Afghan president, some international connection and a conspiracy, although violence in Afghanistan is still too common a tool used in political struggles. Nevertheless, the diversity of scenarios listed above only goes to show how many dangerous enemies and challenges await Abdullah, if he really succeeds in becoming the head of state.