Dr. Hakim Young and Shukria Dellawar say that the signing of the bilateral security agreement by the next Afghan president is going to complicate attempts at reconciliation with the Taliban
ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.
Afghans head to the polls on Saturday to vote in the runoff presidential election after none of the eight candidates in the initial election were able to secure more than 50 percent of the vote in April. The two candidates squaring off are former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Afghan minister of foreign affairs Abdullah Abdullah. This runoff election takes place weeks after the U.S. announced all troops will be removed from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Now joining us to discuss this election are our two guests.
Shukria Dellawar is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. She is an expert on Afghanistan security, reconciliation, and human rights issues and has led several fact-finding missions to Kabul.
Also joining us from Kabul is Dr. Hakim. He is a medical doctor from Singapore who has done humanitarian and social enterprise work in Afghanistan for the past nine years. He is the 2012 recipient of the International Pfeffer Peace Prize.
Hakim has asked us not to show his picture, for safety concerns.
Thank you both for joining us.
SHUKRIA DELLAWAR, SENIOR FELLOW, CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICY: Thank you.
DR. HAKIM YOUNG, HUMANITARIAN ACTIVIST: Thank you for having me.
WORONCZUK: So, Shukria, can you start off by giving us the background of both of these candidates?
DELLAWAR: Sure. As you mentioned, Abdullah Abdullah was a former foreign minister of Afghanistan. He Also was a member of the former Northern Alliance. And he ran in the 2009 elections against Karzai, and so did Ashraf Ghani. Ashraf Ghani is a World Bank technocrat by background. He served as a finance minister to the Afghan government and also was the head of the transition of security from foreign forces to Afghan forces.
WORONCZUK: And what are the major issues in the elections, and as well as the respective policies that they’re putting forth to deal with ruling the country?
DELLAWAR: Well, the main challenges right now in Afghanistan is that the troops, Western troops are leaving completely by 2016, but most will be gone by end of 2014. So there is a security vacuum, and the Afghan Forces have taken the lead. And there are definitely more attacks by Taliban. Security is one of the issues.
But the BSA is not signed by current president Karzai, and that will be left to either Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani to sign. And both candidates are pro-BSA, so that will probably get worked out, whichever one takes the lead.
There are other challenges of economy. Economy in Afghanistan’s collapsing right now as foreign forces are leaving. Security concerns and donors are not giving as much money as in the previous years.
Rule of law’s still a concern, and human rights concerns.
So there are many, many challenges on many fronts, that the successor of Karzai will have to deal with.
WORONCZUK: And, Dr. Hakim, you’re in Kabul right now. What issues seem to be of the greatest concern for people who are heading to the polls on Saturday?
HAKIM: I think Shukria is right. The concern of the people on the ground is also about security. Ministry of defense and interior have assured the public that they are doing the best and will have beefed up the security forces in Kabul and across the country for the elections.
WORONCZUK: Now, the 2009 presidential election was marked by instances of intimidation, fraud, and ballot stuffing. Does it look like these same issues are going to be present for the elections on Saturday?
HAKIM: Well, there have been various reports by news outlets, including the Afghanistan Analysts Network, which I view to be the most accurate in terms of the assessment of the transparency of the first round. And in their analysis and reports, they have been concerned about the way the Independent Election Commission, as well as the Independent Elections Complaints Commission, had not been too transparent in the counting of the votes. So we’re not very sure about whether there will be as much fraudulent votes as they were in 2009.
Having said that, I think it’s good and important to remember that for a couple of years running, Afghanistan in terms of governance has been ranked one of the most or the most corrupt country in the world. So against that background we cannot be too naive in expecting the elections to not have a problem with corruption.
WORONCZUK: So, Shukria, the front runner in the runoff race, Abdullah Abdullah, has said that the current events taking place in Iraq right now demonstrate the need for engagement with the Taliban, the engagement in order to defuse sectarian tensions, and so that the country can be ruled and so that–ruled with peace. What are the leading presidential candidates’ views on reconciliation with the Taliban?
DELLAWAR: Sure. Well, Abdullah Abdullah was a former member of the Northern Alliance, which makes it a little bit difficult for him if he does run the presidency to reach out to the Taliban, just because of that history. With that noted, he is open to peace and reconciliation and will probably facilitate that under his term, because any candidate that comes to power has to take the lead on that.
With Ashraf Ghani, he believes in a comprehensive peace. So it’s not just peace with the Taliban; it’s uniting the nation from the 30 years of war and violence across ethnic lines and political divisions and the insurgency.
So both candidates are pro-talks with the Taliban, but one has a slight disadvantage in the lead. But at the same time, Ashraf Ghani has a disadvantage with his running mate, General Dostum, who has a history of being quite anti-Taliban. So that is going to be a tricky thing that will get played out depending on who takes the lead in this election.
WORONCZUK: And, Hakim, the Western press has basically characterized the support between the two candidates among ethnic lines, that the Tajiks generally support Abdullah Abdullah and that the Pashtuns are more in support of Ashraf Ghani. How significant are ethnic tensions or ethnic divides playing in terms of the politics leading up to the election?
HAKIM: I think in the runoff election campaigning there has been quite a bit of ethnic talk by the candidates, and their team members as well. Interestingly, there has been a report of a tribal council meeting in one of the northern provinces, where recently they decided that they would make it almost a rule that all their tribal members and people turn out for the vote, specifically in support of Mr. Ashraf Ghani, who is–who comes from their tribal linkages. So there is a factor, ethnic factor involved.
Again, it’s good to think about the bigger and larger context, that in the past 13 years, since 2001, since the U.S.-NATO coalition has come and the Karzai government has been in power, there has been so very, very little done to bridge the gaps between the different ethnic groups, to build any grassroots reconciliation among the different tribes. So I don’t think an election can change that.
WORONCZUK: Do you think the elections, though, are going to bring any positive change? Do you think they’re going to be as pivotal as the mainstream press in the United States has depicted it thus far?
HAKIM: I personally don’t think so, but the best responses would be from the people themselves and among the youth that I work with. There is great cynicism and skepticism. But this could be said for young people anywhere in the world, not just in the Afghanistan, that politicians in many, many different countries, including politicians here, have not been good in meeting up with their rhetoric. And so I sense that many young people are not really expecting change to come from the election of one individual with his team members.
WORONCZUK: And, Shukria, what’s your take? Do you think that the winner of the presidential election is–which, as I mentioned before, the front runner is Abdullah Abdullah. Do you think that there’s going to be any significant changes in the way that Afghanistan is governed?
DELLAWAR: I think when it comes to governance, Ashraf Ghani has the background for that. And Abdullah Abdullah also served as a minister.
But the real trouble is with their coming into. When President Karzai came in in 2001, you know, the Taliban were minimized. And there were two [incompr.] years [incompr.] where reconciliation, national reconciliation could have been pursued. Unfortunately, unfortunately, at that time, U.S. was just following hard power strategy and military intervention and military solution only, and it was not until later, until 2006, 2007, that even the talks about reconciliation came up. And, unfortunately, that window was missed by the Karzai administration. And so with these candidates now, they’re coming at a much more difficult time to strike a balance, because the Taliban are more forceful now, and also they know U.S. forces are completely out in the near future, so they don’t have the incentive they did in, let’s say, 2006, ’07, ’08, ’09, even ’10, ’11, to negotiate.
But if the new–whether it’s Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani is able to take over government, hit the ground running, work with the West, work with the region, diplomacy, figure at the economic balance of Afghanistan ’cause the war economy has collapsed, I mean, these are all challenges that the next person will [face]. And I don’t see–you know, at best these are fragile times for Afghanistan, even if you get the best leadership right now.
WORONCZUK: And, Hakim, I’m wondering how are people in Kabul talking about what’s going on in Iraq right now? Like, for example, are they talking about the need to change the kind of security agreements or arrangements with the United States?
HAKIM: Well, there’s lots of different talk about the security agreement. But specifically with regards to what is happening in Iraq right now, the Iraqi government and parliament did not sign the security agreement in 2009 or at the end of 2011. People here, Afghans, having seen so many different powers that be that have fought with them and interfered in their affairs, are naturally and rightfully suspicious of what foreign powers do. So they are suspicious of what the U.S. government did and is trying to do in Iraq, and also perhaps just as skeptical here with the bilateral security agreement.
That’s not to say that the people have any say in the signing of the agreement. I don’t know whether Shukria will have a comment on this. But I don’t think ordinary Afghans have much of a say. There was a loya jirga organized by the president, almost orchestrated by the president, on a couple of occasions. And also the way in which President Obama had come to Afghanistan to sign the first part of that agreement–he came at midnight and left like a thief.
All those things, I think, make people not so confident about what’s going on with the security agreement. Iraq, what’s happening in Iraq shows, I think, to people that a military approach anywhere, whether there or in Afghanistan, is ultimately not going to work.
DELLAWAR: When it comes to the BSA, like you said, the Afghan people don’t really have much of a say. It will be signed. Although during the loya jirgas, the Afghans did, the majority did show that they wanted the U.S. to stay. And the reason for that is mainly because they know that there will be a vacuum of security. Even though Afghan forces have taken over, the equipment, the funding, and all of those things are not in the place in the budget of Afghanistan. It’s going to need long-term international Western aid to finance the government, the army, the security sector, and its economy. So the new president doesn’t have a choice but to sign the BSA.
At the same time, signing the BSA puts them at odds with the Taliban. And then, without security, you cannot have–without security you cannot have peace, and without peace you cannot build the economy. So this is a very, very challenging time for the new president to come in.
WORONCZUK: Okay. Shukria Dellawar and Dr. Hakim Young, thank you both for joining us.
DELLAWAR: Thank you.
HAKIM: Thank you very much. Thank you.
WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.