- Afghan elections - NATO - Taliban
The relatively incident-free voter registration process in the run-up to the August 20 Afghan elections was greeted with relief by the Afghan and international communities, sparking hopes that the security situation would not seriously imperil the upcoming polls.
The Afghan campaign
Some Afghan experts, such as Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a policy research organisation, believe there are indications that the disruption of the elections was “not a major priority for the insurgents”.
In her report, How to Win an Afghan Election, published earlier this month, van Bijlert said there were reports of “a possible split in the Taliban leadership with regard to the elections, which – if true – may be linked to a ‘wait and see’ approach within certain sections of the [Taliban] movement”.
But Saturday’s attack on NATO’s heavily fortified headquarters in the heart of the Afghan capital of Kabul, which killed seven people, has raised serious security concerns about the August 20 poll.
“In terms of PR [for the insurgents] this was a very successful one,” said van Bijlert. “It’s one that would take a lot of planning, so it definitely means that the insurgents have the means to pull it off.”
The real question, however, is which part of the complex structure that makes up the Taliban is responsible for Saturday’s attack.
Thomas Ruttig, a former UN diplomat and a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, notes that the Taliban’s organisation today can be divided into seven armed structures, including the so-called Kandahari mainstream, which is comprised of close, long-time associates of Taliban chief Mullah Omar from his hometown, the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Other Taliban wings include the Haqqani and Mansur family networks, as well as small Salafist groups from the eastern region.
“All of them have the will to conduct such an attack, but not all of them have the capacity,” said Ruttig. “This attack appears to have the stamp of the Haqqani network.”
The Haqqani network is named for Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is believed to be based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region near the Afghan border. An aging former mujahid of the anti-Soviet resistance, Haqqani has handed over operational control of the group to his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Over the past few years, the Haqqani network has moved into the strategically important region just south of Kabul, in Afghanistan’s Wardak and Logar provinces. The Haqqani network is believed to be responsible for earlier attacks in the capital, including an attack on the Afghan Justice Ministry earlier this year and the July 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy, which killed 50 Afghans and two Indian diplomats.
In the lead-up to the August 20 presidential and provincial council polls, the Taliban has repeatedly threatened to disrupt the elections. Saturday’s attack on the NATO headquarters is widely viewed as a sign that the Taliban intends to keep its word.
But van Bijlert notes that in the complex world of Taliban motivations, it’s hard to say if the NATO suicide bombing was directly targeting the Afghan electoral process or whether it was part of the “normal insurgency process” – the insurgency’s ongoing onslaught against the multinational military forces stationed in the country and the internationally backed Afghan administration, both considered “legitimate targets” by the Taliban.
There have been sporadic attacks on provincial council candidates across the country in the past few months, including the abduction of a provincial council candidate from Ghazni, in eastern Afghanistan, while he was on his way to Kabul. A week later, Afghan army troops discovered his body in Wardak province.
“I don’t want to downplay these attacks, but clearly the insurgents have not unleashed the full force of what they could do against the electoral process,” said van Bijlert.
Saturday’s attack comes amid ongoing multilayered efforts to engage and negotiate with parts of the Taliban.
Earlier this week, British daily The Guardian reported that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the controversial brother and campaign manager of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, had brokered deals with individual Taliban commanders to pull back on election day and allow the Afghan army and police to secure polling centers.
An unnamed NATO spokesman confirmed the report, saying there were a number of deals between the Afghan government and insurgents in the pipeline, and stating that NATO would support “any initiative that enhances security and enables the people of Afghanistan to vote”.