Old suspicions resurface as Afghans vote in parliamentary polls
A daring attack that killed an leading anti-Taliban Afghan security official while sparing the top US commander in Afghanistan has sparked Afghan suspicions about the US as Afghans vote in Saturday’s parliamentary elections.
Afghanistan votes once again amid familiar scenes of tightened security following yet another violent campaign season and Taliban warnings to the Afghan people to desist from exercising their democratic rights.
The pattern has not changed in a decade although the security situation keeps deteriorating, 17 years after a US-led military operation ousted the Taliban regime in Kabul.
The 2018 parliamentary election campaign was extraordinarily bloody, even by Afghan standards. Hundreds of people were killed or wounded in poll-related violence and at least 10 candidates were killed in the lead-up to Saturday’s parliamentary elections, which are being held after an almost three-year delay.
The most shocking pre-poll attack came on Thursday, when the Taliban killed General Abdul Razik – a powerful Afghan police commander and implacable Taliban foe – inside a highly secure compound in the southern city of Kandahar. It sent a chilling message to the Afghan people just 48 hours before Election Day: the Taliban can strike when and where it likes.
Voting has been postponed in critical Kandahar province following Thursday’s attack, which also killed Abdul Momin, the provincial intelligence chief, and wounded the provincial governor. The US commander of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, General Austin Scott Miller, who was standing nearby when the attack occurred, was not hurt.
With the Taliban issuing a fresh call for a boycott on the eve of the election, the mere act of voting in Afghanistan today is a statement of courage and defiance. The resilience of the Afghan people will once again be on display Saturday as they choose from over 2,500 candidates – including a record number of women – contesting 249 parliamentary seats.
They are voting, however, for a new parliament amid mixed signs from the US over its commitment to Afghanistan’s democratically elected leaders and the country’s fledgling electoral process.
US Afghan war policy mirrors Vietnam muddle
As the US enters its 17th year of engagement in Afghanistan – its longest conflict on foreign soil since the Vietnam War – the policy muddle in Washington is starting to disconcertingly mirror the floundering middle path adopted by US administrations during the final years of the conflict in Southeast Asia.
After decrying nation-building and lambasting Afghanistan as a “complete waste” on the campaign trail, US President Donald Trump announced increased troop levels shortly after taking office in January 2017.
But the latest surge did little to improve the security situation in Afghanistan. “The Taliban’s influence is increasing day by day. We saw them attacking places like Kunduz [in northern Afghanistan] and [the southeastern city of] Ghazni. The situation on the map speaks for itself,” said FRANCE 24’s Wassim Nasr, referring to a map of Afghanistan showing the number of districts either contested or in Taliban control. “This has a real impact on the diplomatic front.”
In a significant policy shift earlier this year, the Trump administration instructed senior US diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban in a bid to negotiate an end to the war. The appointment last month of Zalmay Khalilzad as US special envoy to Afghanistan was widely viewed as a sign that the Trump administration was now committed to a peace process.
US sidelines, humiliates Ghani
A former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Khalilzad, 67, was born in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif before moving to the US as a teenager. An ethnic Pashtun, Khalilzad was widely viewed as a kingmaker and de-facto ruler in Afghanistan following his appointment by former US president George W. Bush, earning the moniker, “the Viceroy of Kabul” in Afghan circles.
It wasn’t long before the familiar crop of US diplomats and their advisers got trapped in the Afghan policy fog as their political bosses in Washington swerved from troop surges to withdrawal deadlines, committing to both war and peace, and declaring victory while at the same time acknowledging defeat.
With that came the old mistakes by the old cast of players, feeding Afghan rumour mills about Washington’s real intentions in the war-wracked country.
Earlier this month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a staunch US supporter, suffered a public humiliation when Khalilzad and his team met Taliban representatives in Qatar without engaging or even informing the Afghan government.
Ghani has repeatedly called for peace talks with the Taliban and declared a ceasefire for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha over the summer that saw extraordinary scenes of reconciliation across the country during the festive season. But the Afghan president has repeatedly expressed concern over the prospect of talks between US and Taliban representatives that did not include his government.
In a meeting in Kabul the day after Khalilzad met the Taliban, Ghani asked the US envoy about reports of a Taliban meeting, but he was not given a clear response, according to a report by the New York Times. At one point during the meeting, a visibly irritated Ghani was handed a note by an aide informing him that an article about the Khalilzad-Taliban meeting had already appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Afghan officials told the Times that Khalilzad responded that he had read that story but criticised the sourcing before moving the conversation to other topics.
“We saw the Taliban meeting directly with the US after the opening of the Taliban delegation [office] in 2013 in Doha. They met the American envoy directly, excluding the Afghan government, which didn’t please the Afghan officials at all,” explained Nasr. “Officials in Afghanistan today are very scared because this is a loss of legitimacy on the street, as well as regarding other political forces in Afghanistan.”
History repeats itself
It was not the first time US officials have undermined their Afghan partners in the Arg presidential palace.
Five years ago, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai was similarly sidelined, humiliated and miffed when his US counterpart, Barack Obama, gave the green light for the opening of a “political office of the Afghan Taliban” in the Qatari capital, Doha. The Taliban, however, proceeded to hoist its old flag on the Doha premises and call it the “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” infuriating Karzai.
By the end of his term, as Karzai grew increasingly suspicious of Washington and US officials publicly wondered about the Afghan leader’s mental health, the relationship had deteriorated to such a low that the Afghan president refused to sign a key US-Afghan security pact. The deal was finally signed a day after Ghani took office in September 2014.
Suspicions over Miller’s escape
The historical suspicions resurfaced when the Taliban succeeded in killing General Razik while US commander General Miller – who was in the Kandahar compound when the attack occurred – escaped unharmed.
As Afghans took to Twitter and other social media sites to pay tributes to Razik, many expressed incredulity about Miller’s escape.
“In one room all of high profile Afghans martyred and Scott Miller alive?! Isn’t it amazing? Something is wrong,” tweeted an Afghan photographer.
In one room all of high profile Afghans martyred and Scott Miller alive !? Isn't it amazing ?Emroo (@EmrooPhotos) October 18, 2018
Something is going wrong 😔💔😥#Afghanistan #Kandahar #Raziq #JabarQahraman #ScottMiller pic.twitter.com/CNZE3Fk9eF
A two paragraph Taliban statement issued shortly after Thursday’s attack began claimed an infiltrator had killed “the brutal commander Abdul Razik” without mentioning Miller. A later, longer statement claimed “the actual targets were the American commander Miller and Kandahar’s brutal commander Abdul Razik,” according to the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.
In an interview with the Afghan Tolo TV station Friday, Miller noted that, “My assessment is that I was not the target. It was a very close confined space. But I don't assess that I was the target."
While Washington’s failure to include the Afghan government in Taliban talks have angered successive administrations in Kabul, experts say it is understandable given the militant group’s repeated insistence that it will not negotiate with what they consider “the puppet government” at the Arg palace.
But Afghans are keenly aware of the fickleness of a US friendship and any security agreements following Washington’s disengagement after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, when the country slid into a murderous civil war.
The Taliban’s systematic targeting of senior Afghan figures opposed to the militant group has sparked fears of a brutal crackdown following a likely US withdrawal from Afghanistan. They have also displayed no interest in the democratic process that was established after their 2001 ouster.
“The Taliban have been building a parallel government structure in the country since a while and they do not recognise at all the political process. They do not recognise elections. They say elections are illegitimate since they do not abide by Islamic rules. What they want is to win the war, the whole thing, on their terms,” explained Nasr.
For the nearly 8 million Afghans who have registered to vote in Saturday’s polls though, their commitment to exercising their democratic rights is a sign that many Afghans may be bloodied by the brutal insurgency, but they remain unbowed.