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Will Dr Abdullah be president in Afghanistan?
By Najmuddin A Shaikh
Published: May 12, 2014

The final results of the Afghan presidential elections will not be announced before May 14 and may, in my view, be delayed further but two things seem certain. There will be no first-round winner and the run-off election will be held around the middle of June.

Political circles in Kabul are paying close attention to the talks that Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are having with the eliminated contenders. All the eliminated contenders are Pashtuns. A detailed examination of the first round results showed that ethnicity had largely, if not wholly, determined the voting pattern. It seemed almost certain that those who had voted for these defeated candidates would now vote for Ashraf Ghani and render futile Abdullah Abdullah’s thirteen percentage point lead in the preliminary count.

Two developments seem to suggest that this expectation may not be borne out. First, one of the Pashtun candidates, Gul Agha Sherzai, has announced his support for Abdullah, and his 106,000 votes, if they remain intact, would bring Abdullah closer to the approximately half a million extra votes he needs to secure a majority if the voter turnout remains at seven million or so. One can discount, perhaps, unless Karzai is playing his own game, the rumours that Zalmai Rasoul, President Karzai’s favoured candidate, who secured 11.5 per cent of the vote, is being successfully wooed by Abdulllah and may throw his support behind Abdullah. Zalmai garnered his votes largely from the South —Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan— and here Pashtun sentiment is strong. On the other hand, one can also recall that in 2009, Karzai’s local rivals had wanted to vote for Abdullah but their votes were somehow voided.

The second and perhaps more important factor is the announcement by the Taliban that their military campaign would start on May 12 at 5am. The resignation of Mullah Zakir, a known hardliner on the issue of reconciliation, from his post as head of the Military Council of the Taliban Movement had suggested that the moderates were gaining ascendancy in the councils of the ‘Quetta Shura’. This has been vigorously denied and the new campaign will be waged strongly. Perhaps the ANSF will, as the Afghans maintain, be able to handle any Taliban attacks just as successfully as they did on April 6. But the fact is that in many Pashtun dominated provinces — Ghazni, Wardak, Logar, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Helmand, Paktia, Paktika, Khost and even Kunduz — the current threat of a Taliban offensive will keep voters away from the polls and the principal loser from the reduced Pashtun turnout will be Ashraf Ghani. In the eastern provinces, Kunar, Nuristan, Paktia, Paktika and Khost the CIA financed militias are being disbanded as the CIA plans its own withdrawal. This will give the Taliban an even freer hand in these provinces.

The next few weeks will see a lot of political manoeuvring in Kabul but to my mind the odds seem, because of the factors mentioned above, to favour Abdullah Abdullah. Many in Pakistan will view this as an ominous development since for a long time the Pakistan establishment had perceived the Northern Alliance as inimical towards Pakistan. In the last few years, however, there has been a consistent and seemingly sincere effort on the part of Islamabad to reach out to erstwhile Northern Alliance leaders and to offer assurances that Pakistan would deal with whatever leadership the Afghan electorate brought to power.

Abdullah Abdullah is a skilled politician who has built a support base despite formidable odds. In a number of meetings one was impressed by his growing maturity and above all, by his realistic and pragmatic understanding of the regional situation and the pivotal role in this context of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. If he is the leader Pakistan has to deal with, we should be prepared to do so casting our misgivings aside and help in whatever way we can to get the new president to negotiate reconciliation with Mullah Omar.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 12th, 2014.

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