All sides prepare for elections in Afghanistan

All sides prepare for elections in Afghanistan
© Getty Images

Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 20. Considering how fragile the security environment actually is, you just can’t be sure of what’s going to transpire tomorrow, let alone an event more than two weeks away. But, it is heartening to see that campaigning for the upcoming elections has kicked off in the country. If there’s one thing that could rid Afghanistan of terrorism and insurgency, it’s the will of the people. And a ballot box is an ideal parameter to gauge that.  

The people of Afghanistan aren’t alone in their interest in the elections. There are, at least, three important factors that need reckoning.

The Pakistan Effect

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Pakistan will want to have a government in Kabul that is, at least, not hostile towards its eastern neighbor. Having the Taliban get a piece of the pie is something Pakistan would, surely, be eyeing. But, even if the Taliban manages to spring a surprise and make the Kabul government offer political concessions, it’s not obvious how would that change the strategic dynamics in the AF-PAK region.

Does Pakistan still have that sort of a leverage over the Taliban it used to? The simple answer: No. But would Pakistan nevertheless take a chance on the Taliban being part of the government in Kabul? It almost sounds too enticing not to fall for it.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has repeatedly called for a “political solution” to the situation in Afghanistan during his current U.S. trip, yet the policy-makers in Islamabad might want to assess their options and place their bets accordingly.

The option of backing the Taliban for the elections comes with a cost: Further alienating the United States, and at a time when the Afghan Taliban aren’t too much strategically aligned with Pakistan, either.

So, with little influence and political clout to play with, Pakistan might decide to play it safe this time around.

The Afghanistan Effect

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As I've been saying for the past few months now, the Taliban are going by their playbook: Launch terror attacks, and vow for peace talks at the same time. The insurgent group has already been provided with many concessions, notably political. Don't be surprised if the Taliban decides to the up the ante this month to ensure they gain as much political space as possible before the elections.

It is up to the Kabul government to ensure they don’t fall into the trap. It is imperative not to concede much to the insurgents without requiring them to shed violence. And, if there’s any headway with regards to a breakthrough, it should encompass more than mere assurances.

There should be a comprehensive framework between the government and the Afghan Taliban. Authorities in Kabul shouldn’t agree to anything less, considering they’re unlikely to gain more on any deal they propose.

We could only hope the Kabul government wouldn’t take the bait this time around.

The U.S. effect

The United States needs to keep it simple: Treat the insurgents as insurgents that might or might not want to partner with the terrorists, i.e. the Islamic State Khorasan Province. The U.S. forces need to understand that massive scale attacks just won’t serve the purpose. Pick and choose targeted attacks to decimate the group from within; a preference of psy-ops over artillery is required.

Otherwise, the Taliban could end up having a major share of the next government without chalking out a peace mechanism, which ia a scenario the United States has been dreading for years now.

It is up to U.S. policymakers to decide how they want to navigate the troubled waters of Afghanistan democracy. The next couple of weeks are going to be crucial.

Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism and security analyst who teaches at National Defence University in Islamabad, Pakistan. His research focuses on South Asian security, Middle East politics and security issues, counterterrorism strategies, and military-related affairs. His commentary has been published by World Policy Journal, Asia Times, RealClearDefense, and The Defense Post, the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor and others. You may reach him at shazar.shafqat786@gmail.com