The buildup to Saturday’s nationwide election in Afghanistan has seen an uptick in violence, with an attack last week on an election center in Kabul, located next to the home of one of the leading presidential candidates, and more recently an attack on the election commission in the capital. The aftermath of the poll amid the impending NATO withdrawal is likely to see a number of armed groups seek to exploit an uncertain security situation.
The largest nonstate armed group in Afghanistan, currently, is the Taliban, who have vowed to derail the vote, and who on Monday kidnapped a provincial council candidate in northern Afghanistan. The movement’s reach stretches from the north of the country to the southern provinces of Helmand and, of late, Kandahar, its birthplace. The Taliban have also shown an unsettling ability to strike in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan’s most protected and heavily fortified city. And they retain strong influence in the Pashtun redoubts along the border with Pakistan, in eastern provinces such as Paktika and Khost.
A different but related threat comes in the form of the Haqqani network, a group allied with the Taliban under the leadership of Jalaluddin Haqqani that draws support from the Pashtun-dominant south and east of the country. It has also long been suggested that the group receives support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a connection made explicit in the past by U.S. officials.
Though smaller than the Taliban (its numbers are estimated at around 3,000, compared with more than 25,000 for the Taliban), the network is known for its high-profile attacks. It has an advantageous position in the country’s eastern provinces along the Pakistani border, from which it can directly threaten Kabul.
“The Haqqani network has been more active in some ways over the last few months, and so we have energized our efforts accordingly,” said Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. An assessment of the country’s security situation funded by Congress called the Haqqani network “the greatest strategic threat to Afghanistan” of all the groups allied to the Taliban.
“The various insurgent groups that focus on Afghanistan — particularly the Taliban and the Haqqani network — will maintain and perhaps strengthen their alliance. As long as the regime in Kabul survives and U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan, these groups will remain largely united,” the report said.
According to Seth G. Jones and Keith Crane, Afghan experts at the Council on Foreign Relations, “An even more complex set of political networks has developed at the regional and local levels," referring to the power centers outside the Afghan central government. "These organizations have lost power and relevance over the past decade, but could become more important if the Taliban makes gains on the battlefield and the central government begins to fracture.”
In the country’s north, especially, many powerful figures that were once mujahedeen fighters against the Soviet Union and later figured into the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance are now indispensable forces in the country’s political structure, as well as influential figures in the Afghan National Security Forces.
Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former general in the Soviet-backed army turned mujahedeen warlord and, later, Northern Alliance commander, retains massive influence among the country’s Uzbeks, who make up 10 percent of the population, and the smaller Turkmen minority. A controversial figure accused of massive human rights violations, Dostum has openly talked about reorganizing an Uzbek militia outside of the auspices of the central Afghan state. Many reports suggest he already commands a military force that reports to him personally. He has inserted himself into the presidential election as the running mate to Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank technocrat considered one of the leading three candidates.
Atta Mohammed Noor, an ethnic Tajik (a group that makes up some 25 percent of the country’s population, and whose leaders dominated the Northern Alliance) who is governor of the northern Balkh province, is politically close to Abdullah Abdullah, another leading candidate. While the broad ethnic composition of the Afghan army is largely representative of society in general, the officer class is still largely Tajik, revealing some of the tensions that remain within the military.
Also supporting Abdullah is Mohammad Mohaqiq, perhaps the most prominent of Afghanistan’s Hazaras, a Shia Muslim ethnic group making up about 10 percent of the population and also a key component of the Northern Alliance.
Supporting neither Ghani nor Abdullah in the election is one of the country’s most powerful figures, Ismail Khan, a former warlord and influential anti-Taliban figure as well as the ex-minister for water and energy. Khan is running for vice president with Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a conservative Islamic parliamentarian with close ties to Saudi Arabia and mujahedeen members.
Khan, whose seat of power is in the country’s west, where he previously governed Herat province and was known as “the emir,” told Der Spiegel last fall that the Afghan army would never be able to keep the country stable on its own. He said, like Dostum, that he’d already begun the process of organizing a militia that would be loyal to him, rather than the Afghan state, along lines established during the mujahedeen’s fight against the Soviets in the 1980s. “What good is this army?” he said, questioning the ability of the national government to defend the country.
Despite the national security forces numbering more than 350,000, questions remain over whether they are up to the challenge of defeating the Taliban — or even whether they’ll hold together if the post-Karzai order breaks down on ethnic lines, reprising the civil war that began after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Amanullah Faryabi, an electoral officer in the northern province of Jowzjan, told The Wall Street Journal last week that ahead of the election it was not just anti-government insurgents but also factional rivalries that are likely to lead to instability in the country.
“It's not just the Taliban who want to blow us up, it is also the power brokers that are threatening us," said Faryabi.