After Karzai: Do Afghanistan’s Presidential Elections Matter?

(By Julie Poucher Harbin for IslamiCommentary)

March 19 Ashraf Ghani campaign rally in the Awden desert in northern Kunduz province, Afghanistan.  Photo: Twitter feed of Habib Khan Totakhil (@HabibKhanT)

March 19 Ashraf Ghani campaign rally in the Awden desert in northern Kunduz province, Afghanistan.
Photo: Twitter feed of Habib Khan Totakhil (@HabibKhanT)

Afghanistan Goes to the Polls

First, the election timeline. While Karzai is due to step down – he’s limited by the constitution from seeking another term — his departure, realistically, might not come for some time.

Provided elections go forward April 5, there’s likely to be a second round, said [the WSJ’s Nathan] Hodge, which according to the IEC, would likely be sometime later in May. Taking into account further vote counting, adjudication of disputes and the like, a new president might not be in place before mid-to-late summer. (In other words, if the new president kept to his campaign promise and signed the BSA, it might not leave enough time to adjust to facts on the ground.)

Hodge warned there could be protests over the results and allegations of fraud as there was following the 2009 presidential election.

The ideal outcome for Afghans and the international community alike, he said, is an election that’s credible, seen as fair, and doesn’t become “embroiled in violence.”

There is also widespread concern, especially in insecure areas, about how the polls will be monitored, Hodge said: “Is there going to be ballot stuffing in places where security is bad? How do you win an election in parts of the country where people are worried about Taleban intimidation, where they’re worried about violence on the day of the polls ?”

“Certainly I’m not in the business of trying to predict how the election will come out but the ideal outcome at least in the eyes of the international community and most of the ordinary Afghans that we speak to, and officials we speak to, is an election that doesn’t become embroiled in violence; that there is not major or massive violent disruption of the election by the Taleban, by other groups, and that it is not a result that leads some of the factions — the traditional factions that fought each other in the (Afghan) Civil War in the 90s — to rearm… because that’s what led to considerable destruction of part of the city of Kabul, and the deaths of a lot of people in the 1990s,” said Hodge. “No one would like to see a reprise of that, but if the elections are not seen as fair, and if they are seen as giving short shrift to one or another group, then it could be potentially dangerous.”

As of this week there were nine presidential contenders remaining in the field. Former Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, and Qayyum Karzai, brother of current President Hamid Karzai, both dropped out in recent weeks.


Abdullah Abdullah (Photo: US embassy Kabul/Flickr)

One candidate who’s been seen as a likely frontrunner is Abdullah Abdullah, a former Foreign Minister who came in second place in the 2009 election with more than 30% of the vote but during the second round “withdrew from a head-to-head runoff with incumbent Karzai, claiming he lacked confidence that the ballot would be free and fair.”

Said Hodge, “He’s said to this paper (WSJ), that his main enemy in this campaign is going to be fraud.”

Another contender, one who placed a distant fourth in the 2009 election, but who’s also on the frontrunner list, is Mohammad Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Duke professor [Bruce] Lawrence — who first met him back when Ghani was an academic in the ‘70s and before Ghani joined the World Bank — recently had the chance to see him again. Ghani’s benefit is also his deficit: he is so closely connected to overseas forces that have countered the Taleban that Ghani, in Lawrence’s words, “has to defend himself against the perception that he lacks the ability to connect with voters.” Bluntly stated, is Ghani too connected with the international community to get Afghan votes?


Ashraf Ghani (photo: US embassy Kabul/Flickr)

Ghani returned to Afghanistan in 2001 following the defeat of the Taleban to serve as Special Advisor to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. It was he who “helped draw up the Bonn Agreement that shaped structures for the new Afghan state.” He went on to serve as finance minister with the transitional government before running for president in 2009 and placing a distant fourth.

Lawrence asked Hodge about the read on Ghani’s chances this time around.

“He is well known in the international community and is well known in development circles and is a prominent thinker about development issues,” said Hodge. “He’s come into I think, it’s fair to say, more prominence in the past couple of years. He was the chief transition advisor to President Karzai, which meant that he spent a lot of time travelling around the country, meeting with provincial and district leaders to talk about how this process of handing over responsibility for security would happen across the country as U.S. troops drew down.”

Ashraf Ghani's wife making a women's day speech in Loya Jirga tent, Kabul, March 8, 2014.  Photo: Twitter feed of @SultanFaizy‬‬

Ashraf Ghani’s wife making a women’s day speech in Loya Jirga tent, Kabul, March 8, 2014. Photo: Twitter feed of @SultanFaizy‬‬

Ghani is a member of an influential family within the Ahmadzai, a powerful Pashtun tribe.

“He (Ghani) joined forces with (his choice for first vice-president) Abdul Rashid Dostum who’s a prominent former warlord who can be counted on to draw a good number of votes in the north, which is an interesting move,” said Hodge. “One of the things that happened after Ghani joined forces with Dostum was that Dostum issued an apology for some of the … misdeeds that happened in the past, during the (Afghan) civil war, which was a pretty remarkable thing.”

This political move, according to an Institute for War & Peace Reporting pre-election write-up about the candidates, is “a prime example of the kind of coalition-building that candidates have resorted to.”

The Women’s Vote & Women’s Rights: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Also important to coalition-building is the women’s vote – which can’t be underestimated.

While there are no female candidates for president, three of the candidates have named female second vice presidents — all with teaching backgrounds — to their tickets this year.

Hedayat Amin Arsala (left) (Photo: US embassy Kabul/Flickr); Safia Seddiqi (right) (Photo:

Hedayat Amin Arsala (left) (Photo: US embassy Kabul/Flickr); Safia Seddiqi (right) (Photo:

Hedayat Amin Arsala a technocrat and successful economist who became the first Afghan to join the World Bank, a Foreign Minister in the mujahedin government formed in 1992, as well as Vice President, Finance Minister, and Trade and Industry Minister under Karzai, listed as his Second Vice President Kabul university lecturer and former MP Safia Seddiqi, a Pashtun. (Source: IWPR)

Zalmai Rasul, former National Security Advisor to Karzai, and a medical doctor by training who worked for the exiled monarch Zahir Shah and returned to Afghanistan in 2002, has chosen former pioneering governor of Bamiyan Province and pharmacy professor Habiba Sarobi as Second Vice President. (Source: IWPR) Rasul is one of the favorites of President Karzai, reported Hodge in November.

Zalmai Rasul (left) (Photo: Master Sgt Michael O’Connor/US Air Force); Habiba Sarobi (Photo:

Zalmai Rasul (left) (Photo: Master Sgt Michael O’Connor/US Air Force); Habiba Sarobi (Photo:

Mohammad Daud Sultanzoi, a Pashtun from Ghazni province and former pilot for United Airlines based in California, who returned to Afghanistan after 2001 and served in Ghazni’s parliament in 2005, according to IWPR, “is seen as a moderate technocrat who worked hard to get out the female vote in previous elections, and has emphasized the importance of democratic institutions.” His choice for Second Vice President is university teacher Kazima Mohaqeq, a Hazara.


Mohammad Daud Sultanzoi (Photo: Mohammad Daud Sultanzoi’s Facebook page)

“Women Could Play Influential Role in April’s Elections” read a recent Tolo News headline.

While women make up close to half of the Afghan population, so far only around 1.2 million have registered to vote. This amounts to less than half of the men registered to vote this year, according to the IEC.

In past elections many female voters cast their votes in favor of whomever their male relatives chose, but this could be changing, with women appearing “adamant about going to the polls on their own terms” this time, wrote Tolo News reporter Saleh Sadat.

But she noted that both women and men have cautioned female voters about “pandering politicians.”

“Apparently at this point, it seems like candidates are using them as a tool, meaning that they are using women’s interests as their slogan but there are no determined, specific and serious programs for them,” said MP Fowzia Kofi, the head of the Women’s Affairs Committee of the Afghan House of Representatives, according to Sadat’a report.

Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf (left) with his running mates Ismail Khan and Abdul Wahhab Irfan. Photo: Mina Habib, IWPR

Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf (left) with his running mates Ismail Khan and Abdul Wahhab Irfan. Photo: Mina Habib, IWPR

The candidacy of Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, a former mujahedin commander (the Ittehad-e-Slami faction) and one of the most conservative of the leading candidates, has raised a lot of concern in diplomatic circles, Hodge said, about his commitment to women’s rights. Rabb has opposed women’s rights legislation in the past.

“It was very interesting to me to attend his campaign rally in what’s called the Loya Jirga hall here in Kabul. There was only a very small group of women who attended and Sayyaf actually went on an extended riff addressing international criticism of his record on women’s rights. And one of the points he made is that he actually supported the rights of women to exercise their political rights to go out and vote, to be in the workplace, to work outside of the home, but in addition to women’s rights he also emphasized that, and I think this was code word for the audience he was addressing, ‘protecting the dignity of women’, which I think some people, women’s rights advocates would view with skepticism. Dignity according to whom and who decides? Obviously this is going to be a problem and he’s faced a lot of questions about it.”

A Pashtun from Kabul province, Sayyaf was educated at Cairo’s al-Azhar University and is seen as a religious conservative, as is his running mate former governor of Herat Ismail Khan. (Source: IWPR)

“There’s a lot of trepidation around the upcoming elections in Afghanistan, not only a concern about the number of candidates who are not conducive to women’s rights protection,” said Duke law professor [Jayne] Huckerby, “but a broader concern that, in a post-reconciliation phase in Afghanistan, women’s rights will be bartered away, will be part of what gets dropped off the table, in an attempt to promote a cohesive government structure.”

Warned Huckerby, “There’s a lot of concern about what a drawdown looks like, what the support will be, and who will be the remaining advocates for women’s rights in Afghanistan in that event. ”

Speaking to the escalation of violence against women and girls and their increasing insecurity, she not only mentioned attacks by the Taliban insurgency on female officials, including assassination attempts, but also said women were coming under increasing threat from their own government.

“When I talk to my colleagues in Afghanistan, it’s like we’re fighting on both fronts,” she said.

She and Hodge both drew attention to what the international community would call backsliding on women’s rights in recent weeks and months.

Women’s rights efforts have lately gone both toward “maintaining existing gains,” Huckerby said, “whilst also trying to advance laws.”

For example, parliament recently sought to abolish a quota law, Huckerby said, that had secured women’s representation at 25% in provincial councils. Women’s advocates directed their attention to keeping that law, and did end up saving it but with the quota reduced to 20%. (Provincial Council elections will be held concurrently with the presidential elections on April 5)

Huckerby described another two laws that were recently introduced in parliament (seemingly “out of nowhere”); one that gives fathers a greater role in terms of arranging child marriages, and a second one — a proposed amendment to the domestic violence law that would ban family members from giving evidence in cases of domestic violence abuse, “essentially making it impossible to pursue any prosecution for family based crimes.”

Karzai has sent the proposed amendment back to parliament with a request to look at it again, so the law’s ultimate fate remains unclear.

“The fact that it was even introduced and the gravity of what it sought to do is a really bad indicator of where women’s rights protection are in Afghanistan,” said Huckerby.

Nathan Hodge is a Kabul-based correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders (Bloomsbury, February 2011) , a book about the American experience in nation-building. He is also co-author of A Nuclear Family Vacation, a travelogue about nuclear weaponry. He joined the Wall Street Journal in 2010 after a decade covering military affairs and national security, reporting from Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places around the world. His work has appeared in Slate, the Financial Times, Foreign Policy, Jane’s Defence Weekly and Wired. In 2012, he received the National Press Club’s Dornheim award for coverage of U.S. defense policy. He was a Pew Fellow in International Journalism in 2004, and holds a B.A. from Rutgers and an M.A. from Yale.

Jayne Huckerby is Associate Clinical Professor of Law and director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University School of Law. Prior to joining Duke Law, she was a human rights consultant with UN Women on gender equality and constitutional reform; women in conflict prevention, conflict, and post-conflict contexts; and gender and human rights indicators in national security policies. She was previously Research Director and Adjunct Professor of Clinical Law at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law, where she directed NYU Law’s project on the United States, Gender, National Security, and Counter-Terrorism. Huckerby has led multiple fieldwork investigations, provided capacity building to civil society and governments in five regions, and frequently serves as a human rights law expert to international governmental organizations and NGOs, including the International Center for Transitional Justice and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. She also has extensive domestic, regional (Africa, Americas, Europe) and international litigation and advocacy experience. She has written and co-authored numerous articles, book chapters, and human rights reports, and is most recently the co-editor of Gender, National Security, and Counter-Terrorism: Human Rights Perspectives (Routledge 2012). She has a BA.LLB (Hons 1) from the University of Sydney and a LL.M. from NYU School of Law.

Bruce Lawrence earned his PhD. from Yale University (1972) in the History of Religions: Islam and Hinduism. He served as the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor of the Humanities at Duke University and is currently Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University. His research ranges from institutional Islam to Indo-Persian Sufism and also encompasses the comparative study of religious movements. He was founding director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center and currently serves on the DISC Advisory Board. He was a Carnegie Scholar of Islam from 2008-2010. His recent books have included On Violence – A Reader (with Aisha Karim); Messages to the World, The Statements of Osama Bin Laden; The Quran, A Biography; and, with his spouse, miriam cooke, Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop. His forthcoming book will be “Who is Allah?” (UNC Press, 2015).

*Julie Poucher Harbin is Communications Specialist at the Duke Islamic Studies Center and Editor, ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN. She worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, including as a journalist trainer (2004-2005) with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s “Afghan Recovery Report” in Kabul, Afghanistan, which included covering the run-up to the 2009 elections. She also reported on Afghanistan business opportunities for the San Diego Business Journal in Winter 2005, and on the US police training missing in Afghanistan for Workforce Management Magazine in June 2005.

Read the whole thing at IslamiCommentary


Related video added by Juan Cole

Australian Broadcasting Co.: “Security concerns mount ahead of Afghan presidential vote”

One response

  1. If either Abdullah or Ghani win, it might trigger a political crisis
    (Pashtuns may reject Abdullah, and Tajiks and Durrani Pashtuns may reject Ghani).

    The likely “victor” will be Zalmai Rassoul, a Karzai favorite.
    But as President, Rassoul will rein but Karzai will rule.

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