The outcome of the nation’s presidential elections will have serious implications for both regional and global security. The U.S. and Russia should step up their cooperation in Afghanistan if they hope to preserve stability.

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah talks on his mobile before an interview in Kabul April 20, 2014. Photo: Reuters

This year Afghanistan is getting a new president as well as a new governing elite to guide the nation to its new political future. This became apparent when Abdul Qayum Karzai, a brother of current president Hamid Karzai, dropped out of the race during the preliminary round due to ill health and, in part, to the ruling family’s falling popularity. With his withdrawal from the contest, the last opportunity to hold on to the old political structure disappeared, and this means that big changes await Afghanistan in 2014.

The announcement of the preliminary election results also ushered in defeat for a second member of the Karzai clan — Zalmay Rassoul, a former foreign minister and a close associate of President Karzai, with whom Abdul Qayum had allied himself. With 49.7 percent of the ballots counted, Rassoul had 10.4 percent of the votes, trailing by a significant margin the two frontrunners Dr. Abdullah Abdullah (44.4 percent) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (33.2 percent).

These standings have hardly changed since the first 10 percent of the ballots were counted, so it is unlikely that there will be significant differences by the end. All signs point to an imminent runoff between the top two candidates if neither secures more than 50 percent of the vote.

Abdullah: The self-styled proponent of political reform

Dr. Abdullah, a former Foreign Minister who once ran against President Hamid Karzai, is the son of a Tajik mother, but he more often identifies himself as a Kabul Pashtun. That fact, though, does not prevent voters from considering him a steward of the interests of the country’s national minorities against the Pashtun nation (which represents around 40 percent of the population).

Abdullah was part of the circle of visible anti-Taliban Tajik leaders Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad-Shah Massoud. He also worked in the Foreign Ministry of the Northern Alliance government, and after the victory of the anti-Taliban coalition he became the minister of foreign affairs in the Karzai administration. In 2009, Abdullah ran for president as an opposition candidate, running as Karzai’s main competitor, but he conceded with a small advantage and opted not to run in the second round, thus handing the victory to his opponent.

Abdullah is seen as a proponent of radical reform. In his campaign he promised to reconsider the constitution, make Afghanistan a parliamentary republic and expand the powers of the provinces. Many people fear that in current conditions such a step will give disproportionate power to the regional elites, who as it is, hardly obey official Kabul. There is talk of a threat of a feudalization of the country and a return to the crisis of the 1990s, when Afghanistan dissolved into a multitude of mini-governments.

Of course, political reality and campaign promises should not be muddled. Whoever next occupies the presidential palace will as much as possible try to strengthen the central authority since this is the surest way to strengthen personal authority. Abdullah is unlikely to be an exception to this. However, the concerns associated with him mean that his opponents are likely to join forces with the aim of preventing the “northerners’ revenge,” which some experts have nervously discussed.

Ahmadzai: The Afghan technocrat with a Western education

Abdullah’s main rival, Ahmadzai, boasts an impressive Western education and a doctorate (in anthropology) that he earned in the United States. Early in Karzai’s term, he served as finance minister and was responsible for implementing financial reforms. He achieved a certain amount of success, but then was ousted by political opponents.

Later, he served as chancellor of Kabul University, one of the country’s leading higher education institutions, and developed a program to transfer responsibility from international troops to the national army and police force, a program that has been implemented over the past few years. He also ran in the last election, but did not win a significant share of the votes. This time he has been significantly more successful.

Ahmadzai is considered a “technocrat,” a term that describes politicians who have received a good education in the West and have strong professional skills – may not necessarily have significant military achievements from the Afghan conflicts of the 1980s and 1990. Technocrats started gaining in number and strength in the early 2000s and became conspicuous competitors in the power struggle for the votes of the “Mujahideen,” veterans of the civil war. In addition, against the backdrop of Abdullah’s rise, the groups of “northerners” associated with him, and the former Northern Alliance officials, the world can expect that in the runoff Ahmadzai will be able to rally the Pashtun nationalist electorate that is not willing to put Abdullah in office.

Also possible — and even probable — in the runoff is an alliance between Ahmadzai and Rassoul and the Karzai clan; however, it is most likely that the conditions for such a coalition will not be particularly beneficial for the old elite, to which the coalition will be able to guarantee only an honorable removal and a preservation of the capital accumulated in past years. However, none of this guarantees Ahmadzai’s victory in the imminent runoff.

Afghan elections: Unpredictable and potentially destabilizing

Afghans enjoy a performance during a gathering celebrating the peaceful elections, in Kabul April 17, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Afghanistan can look forward to a bruising battle between politicians and their elite groups for the presidential throne. All the candidates who are not in the top three have already stated that they will not accept the preliminary election results announced by the Independent Election Commission.

A similar scenario could play out again during the runoff and lead to a difficult outcome, including attempts to de-legitimize the elected president and even mass demonstrations. These demonstrations would be particularly destabilizing, given the difficult times the country is experiencing. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is in the process of pulling out of Afghanistan, so Afghan soldiers and police officers will need to handle problems in the war on terrorism.

During the first round of the elections, the Afghan security forces did their job: A large number of terrorist acts were prevented, while others failed to disrupt the electoral process. Many analysts are speaking of a clear weakening of the Taliban movement and decreasing probability of a revenge attack by it.

Indeed, according to most estimates, the number of Afghan soldiers and police officers is several times greater than the number of armed fighters in the opposition, from which most major population centers have been liberated.

Terrorist activity continues to exist and is still noticeable, but it does not prevent public authorities from holding on to their power, as in Iraq. Yet it is still too early to speak of a definitive victory. Civilian losses are rising, and the Taliban continues to hope for a beneficial peace settlement with the official government.

Furthermore, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan does not have large developed petroleum sources that would enable it to retain relative financial stability at home and to support public institutions.

The country depends on foreign financial aid, but the United States is insisting that if Afghanistan wishes to hold on to it, it must sign a strategic agreement and allow American military bases on its soil. Most of the presidential candidates have already expressed willingness to sign this document if they are elected, but Afghanistan’s citizens do not understand the accord and see the United States’ policy as blackmail.

There is concern that creating long-term American bases will itself intensify the circumstances in the country and may even bolster the position of the extremists, who are exploiting the public anti-American mood.

In any case, in the future, the United States will need to contend not only with the enmity of the Afghan public but also with the opinions of its own voters, who, according to polls, are weary of the prolonged war and do not want the United States to be too deeply involved in Afghan affairs.

Afghan internal problems pose a threat to global security

Meanwhile, Afghanistan faces numerous other problems. While the country focused on pre-election issues, the amount of opium poppy crops in the country grew by 36 percent and estimated opium production jumped by 49 percent. The drug trade is a central financial pillar of regional terrorism, and the new president, whoever it turns out to be, will need to look for ways to combat narcotics trafficking.

NATO’s approaches to this problem have turned out to be ineffective, and from 2000 to 2010, Afghanistan became the world’s main opiate supplier. In fighting the drug trade, a new government may begin to focus on cooperating with other countries, including China and Russia.

Even now, a number of Afghan narcotics officers are undergoing training in Russia.

In the past, the United States tried to block the sending of many of these Afghan officers to study there, fearing that Russia would gain more influence in Afghanistan. However, after 2014 the situation could change, and despite the preservation of ties with the United States, the Afghan government may conduct a more multifaceted foreign policy.

The Russophobia that the Mujahideen generation of politicians retained from the military campaigns of the 1980s is uncharacteristic of both Abdullah and Ahmadzai. Ahmadzai did not actively take part in that distant armed conflict because he had been working in the United States since the late 1970s. In the 1990s, Abdullah upheld active relations with Moscow, which at the time was the main ally and sponsor of the Northern Alliance in the conflict against the Taliban extremists.

Therefore, there is reason to expect that after the new president is elected, relations between Russia and Afghanistan may experience a brief resurgence. Russian investment may flow into the country, first and foremost directed at developing the country’s petroleum deposits.

In addition, there could be changes in the relationship with China, which has become one of the key investors in the Afghan economy in recent years. Beijing may now get the chance to convert its investments and political influence into formal power. Finally, many analysts expect that Afghanistan will more actively get involved in the conflict between Pakistan and India, leaning toward an alliance with India. This is already sparking deep concern in Islamabad.

One way or another, the situation in Afghanistan is in flux. There will be a new president, and that could lead to changes in the country’s domestic and foreign policy. The country will inevitably become more independent from NATO’s influence, and to a greater degree it will become not the object, but the subject, of international affairs.