Uncertainty surrounds the April 2014 presidential elections in Afghanistan. Not just uncertainty over who will win -- which is a good thing as it means that the elections are competitive -- but uncertainty over the quality of the electoral process. But most observers assume that there is certainty at least with regard to the fact that the armed opposition --in particular its largest component, the Taliban -- will do all they can to disrupt the electoral process, as they did during previous elections.
However, even with regard to the Taliban there are many uncertainties. A report just published by United States Institute of Peace (USIP) describes in detail the intra-Taliban debate about this year's elections.
During 2013, the Taliban debated how they should approach the elections and clear divisions emerged. There were those who thought that the uncertainty and divisions in Kabul could be exploited by negotiating support with some of the candidates or with their political sponsors in exchange for concessions, such as the appointment of sympathetic officials. These were found largely within the Quetta Shura, once the seat of the Taliban's political leadership and now more like one of three main power centres within the Taliban. There were also those who for a while thought the Taliban could support a specific candidate as part of a strategy of deal making with Kabul. These were largely within the Peshawar Shura, another one of the three main centres of power within the Taliban. By late spring however it appeared clear that a deal was no longer a realistic option, as preliminary contacts with Kabul were not yielding the results hoped for, according to Taliban sources. Since then these Taliban groups have converged with others who wanted to mount the most disruptive anti-electoral campaign eve, to make a strong introduction of the Taliban to the new leadership in Kabul.
As of early 2014, therefore, the Taliban were mainly divided into three groups:
1. Those who believed that regardless of the existence of some agreement, the Taliban should do something to help the presidential candidate most likely to negotiate a future peace deal in terms acceptable to the Taliban. Usually, such candidates were identified as Qayyum Karzai or Zalmai Rassoul, although the former has now dropped out of the race;
2. Those who believed that the Taliban were heading for a military victory anyway and saw negotiations as pointless or premature. Noteworthy within this group were the leadership of the third center of Taliban power: the Miran Shah Shura (popularly known as the Haqqani network), but also much of the military leadership of the Quetta Shura;
3. Those who felt that in any case, if the run off to the election was to be between a Pashtun and a non-Pashtun candidate (which is very likely), then ethnic solidarity should prevail.
The third view was found among Taliban commanders particularly in the east, where support among the population for Ashraf Ghani is strong and some Taliban are being carried away by the Ghani wave as well and are reportedly inclined to support him as well. This view is not supported by anybody within the Taliban leadership, however.
Among the believers in military victory, a possible victory of Dr. Abdullah in the elections (the candidate supported by most of the northern political groups, traditionally bitterly opposed to the Taliban) is not seen as a liability. There is a widespread belief that if Abdullah was president, he would be opposed by the large majority of Pashtuns, who would then be driven into the arms of the Taliban, facilitating a ‘military solution.'
The preparations going on in the field should alert us to how serious the Taliban are about challenging the electoral process. In the east, the Taliban have been receiving winter equipment at an unprecedented rate; Taliban commanders report a pressure to keep as many men as possible inside Afghanistan during the winter (usually the bulk of the fighters spend the winter in Pakistan) or to send them back to Afghanistan sooner than usual -- in March. These efforts are driven by the Peshawar Shura, which has also created an ‘electoral office' to coordinate the anti-elections effort. Elsewhere, however, it is business as usual for the Taliban. Interviews carried out in January through March indicate that Taliban commanders received requests from their leadership to bring the fighters back sooner than usual this year, but there was often little organized support to facilitate this effort. It appears that the anti-election campaign in these areas could be half-hearted in many areas.
One factor making the Taliban's strategy more difficult to implement this time is that the polling stations are not as dispersed as they were in 2009, making attacks more difficult to execute. The Taliban are also weaker in parts of the south, particularly central Helmand and Kandahar, than they were in 2009. On the other hand, the International Security Assistance Force will play a much smaller role this year in protecting the polling stations and the Taliban are stronger in the east and in Kabul and the surrounding region than they were in 2009. So, the Taliban's electoral campaign could still be the most violent ever.
The extent to which the Taliban effort will matter is still unclear. The electoral process is unlikely to be transparent enough to produce a clear picture of patterns of voter participation, not least because vote buying is likely to occur on a massive scale. For the Taliban, the best way to be successful in disrupting the elections is carrying out a few high profile attacks, which will be widely reported in the media. The wider anti-elections effort will serve as a reminder to the local population that the Taliban are far from being a spent force.
Dr. Antonio Giustozzi is visiting senior research fellow at the War Studies Department, King's College London, and author of the recent United States Institute of Peace report, The Taliban and the 2014 Elections in Afghanistan.
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