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Why Afghanistan Won’t End Up Like Iraq

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The Pulse

Why Afghanistan Won’t End Up Like Iraq

Despite some worrying signs, Saturday’s elections in Afghanistan offer some positive glimpses of Afghanistan’s future.

This past Saturday, on June 14, Afghanistan successfully held the second round of its presidential elections, which could usher in the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in its history. This election was a run-off between the two frontrunners from the previous round, held on April 5: former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani. Both candidates, unlike incumbent President Hamid Karzai, have pledged to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, which would allow for a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan post-2014.

The election featured an unexpectedly large turnout of over 7 million individuals. Afghans voted despite threats from the Taliban, demonstrating a widespread desire for peace and acceptance of the basic framework of the state, its institutions, and the electoral process. While there were some violent incidents, none of them seriously disrupted the election.

Both Abdullah and Ghani have decent resumes, suggesting that either candidate would be up to the task of administering the still unsettled country. Ghani worked as a senior World Bank economist and is thought to be relatively untainted by the corruption that dominated Afghanistan during Karzai’s presidency. However, this could also work to his disadvantage, as he spent much of his time in Washington D.C. without first-hand experience working in Afghanistan. He may not be ready to handle Afghanistan’s warlords, get things done in an imperfect system, and possibly even fight a war if necessary. This is the sort of experience that Abdullah has (though Ghani’s supporters have argued that electing Abdullah would represent a return to darker times).

Unfortunately, several aspects of the election display disturbing features. One such feature is the ethnic tone the election has taken. Ethnic Pashtuns, who make up the largest group in the country, have dominated the country since they created it in the 18th century, though they account for less than half its population. It is important to remember that Afghanistan is a fairly young country, founded by Pashtun tribesmen who essentially cobbled together a conglomerate of territories from the eastern parts of the Safavid (Persian) Empire, the northwestern regions of the Mughal Empire of India, and the southern areas of the Uzbek Khanate of Bukhara. Afghanistan survived because it served as a buffer state between the British Indian Empire and the Russian Empire. Nonetheless, it is perhaps more stable than a colonial construct like Iraq because most of the groups within Afghanistan have a history of living together and intermingling under the periodic empires that would sweep up the region.

Pashtuns have exclusively run Afghanistan for most of its history. However, this state of affairs is hard to maintain forever. The Soviet invasion destroyed the Afghan state and the resulting insurgency empowered many non-Pashtun groups in the north of the country, particularly Tajiks (a term for Central Asian speakers of the Persian language, called Dari in Afghanistan, who are traditionally dominant in urban centers), Hazaras (a Shia ethnic group of the mountainous central region), and Uzbeks. Abdullah — who is a Tajik — would be the country’s first non-Pashtun leader if he wins, which might explain the coalescence of the Pashtun vote behind Ghani, a Pashtun. If tensions between the two candidates develop into ethnic fissures rather than just political rivalry, that bodes ill for Afghanistan. This, however, is unlikely to be taken to its logical extreme in such a mixed region.

Unfortunately, tensions between the two candidates have risen due to accusations of fraud, especially by Abdullah, whose camp has accused Karzai of using the electoral infrastructure to support Ghani. Ominously, it seems possible that Abdullah is setting himself up for a confrontation if he is not declared the unconditional winner of the election (though he has called for restraint). In any case, the counting of votes has just begun and official results will not be due until July 22, allowing for plenty of time to deal with fraud.

Despite the potential for trouble in Afghanistan, there are some hopeful signs. A weariness of war permeates the country, making large scale conflict undesirable by most parties.

Many former warlords are now politicians and wealthy businessmen who would prefer to see the country at peace so they can keep on making money. Having experienced the Taliban during the 1990s and knowing the consequences of fighting each other instead of the Taliban, almost all former warlords and indeed most of the population agree on the necessity of defeating the Taliban. Contrary to what many analysts believe, the Taliban have limited popular support and are unlikely to make spectacular gains. Unlike Iraq, most of Afghanistan is mountainous and has a long warrior tradition and the incidence of constant war for the last 30 years means that much of the country is armed and inhabited by communities willing and able to fight for their home turfs.

For all these reasons, Afghanistan is probably less likely than Iraq to experience instability despite the continuous threat of the Taliban. Religious and ethnic cleavages are less pronounced than in Iraq and Afghanistan’s inhabitants have a long tradition of sophistication and a history of peaceful coexistence in a region characterized as a great crossroads of people and trade, connecting many great civilizations. Perhaps driven by a memory of this past and a desire for such a future, Afghanistan’s factions will exercise restraint despite whatever the outcome of the election may be. It is likely that the country will slowly continue to muddle towards stability rather than collapse.