BMI View: The year 2014 will be pivotal for Afghanistan, because of the country's presidential election in April, and because of the withdrawal of most NATO troops by December. These twin processes mean that Afghanistan will be prone to more instability than usual.
Afghanistan faces a pivotal year in 2014, as the country will see a new president elected in April, and the withdrawal of most NATO troops by December. Taken together, this will represent the biggest change to the country since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. The chances are high that Afghanistan will see greater instability in 2014-2015, with a modest risk that the country could eventually slide back to full-scale civil war.
Presidential Election: Who Will Succeed Karzai?
Afghanistan will hold a presidential election on April 5, 2014, to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who came to power in 2002 and is ineligible for a further term. Afghanistan's politics is heavily fragmented along ethnic and tribal lines, and the last election in 2009 was marred by allegations of vote-rigging. Furthermore, with the war between government and Taliban forces continuing, and with the number of NATO troops declining, the chances are high that the 2014 election will be subject to disruption. Even without the war, many voters would be suspicious of electoral fraud. This means that Afghanistan will soon have an inexperienced president who is not necessarily regarded as legitimate. If the next president cannot consolidate his authority, there is a risk that the central government in Kabul, which already carries limited sway in the countryside, will weaken further, giving greater authority to regional warlords.
The presidential election itself could be very contentious. There are 10 registered candidates: Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who was the main challenger to Karzai in 2009; Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank official; Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister; Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, a conservative legislator and anti-Soviet resistance commander; Qayum Karzai, older brother of President Karzai; Gul Agha Shirzai, former governor of Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces; Abdul Rahim Wardak, a former defence minister; Qutbuddin Helal, a prominent Islamist figure; Hedayat Amin Arsala, a former finance minister; and Prince Mohammad Nader Naim, a grandson of Afghanistan's last king, Zahir Shah, who was overthrown in 1973. Given this multitude of candidates, it is highly unlikely that any of them will win outright in the first round of elections. This means that considerable political horse-trading will precede the second round.
All candidates are Pashtuns (the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising around 42% of the population), with the exception of Abdullah Abdullah, who is a Tajik (the second-largest group, making up 27% of the population). In order to avoid creating ethnic divisions, all candidates have chosen at least one vice-presidential running mate from ethnicities other than their own, for example, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Each candidate has nominated two running mates.
It is too soon to say which candidate is the strongest. President Karzai has refrained from endorsing anyone, but it is believed that he will use the apparatus of incumbency (i.e. support networks and personal ties) to give his preferred successor a better chance of winning. It is by no means clear that that person would be Qayum Karzai, because the Karzai name could work to his disadvantage. The election of another Karzai as president might resemble the creation of a dynasty. This would be controversial, given that some members of the Karzai family have already come under criticism for enriching themselves, allegedly through corrupt practices. Meanwhile, there is speculation that President Karzai may seek to get a malleable figure elected as his successor, so that he can maintain a powerful behind-the-scenes influence after stepping down. Furthermore, we cannot preclude that unexpected developments could prompt Karzai to find some way of extending his presidential term, or bypass the current term limit.
In terms of policies, several candidates are former cabinet ministers or technocrats, suggesting that they would favour integrating Afghanistan into the global economy. The candidate of greatest concern to the West is Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, since he is a conservative Islamist figure whose camps trained several al-Qaeda fighters in the 1990s. Nonetheless, it is unclear if Afghanistan's next president will have the clout that Karzai has accumulated over more than a decade in office. A weak president could facilitate national fragmentation.
Can Afghanistan 'Survive' The NATO Withdrawal?
NATO nations have maintained a US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan since 2001, which peaked at 140,000 troops (of which 100,000 were American) in 2011. As of November 2013, there were 75,000 NATO troops remaining, of which 48,000 are American. Under current arrangements, NATO states are due to remove virtually all of their troops by the end of 2014. The US is currently negotiating with the Afghan government on maintaining a much smaller force of up to 15,000 troops that could stay until 2024, for the purposes of training and advising Afghanistan's security forces and carrying out small-scale counterterrorism operations. The main sticking points have been whether US troops will be allowed to conduct raids on Afghan homes, and whether American soldiers would be tried in local courts or American courts for any crimes they commit in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties, especially those incurred by the US, have been a major source of anger for Afghans and have led to severe strains between Washington and Kabul. As we went to press, Afghanistan was holding a loya jirga (grand assembly) of 3,000 political and tribal leaders to discuss the security pact. However, President Karzai stated on November 22 that a formal agreement may have to wait until after the 2014 election. This has frustrated the US, which favours an agreement as soon as possible so that it can better plan its post-2014 military presence.
Even if Afghanistan and the US agree to a new security pact, there are doubts about whether the 200,000-strong Afghan National Army can defeat the Taliban insurgency. Indeed, there is a risk that once the bulk of NATO forces have been withdrawn, Western leaders could completely lose interest in the Afghan war, leaving Kabul isolated. This would leave Afghanistan in a similar position to that of the early 1990s, when the Russian-backed regime left in place after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 was overthrown by Islamist fighters. Civil war followed, paving the way for the rise of the Pakistan-backed Taliban, with its opponents largely supported by Russia, India, and Iran - all of which have an interest in keeping the Taliban at bay.