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Afghan election: Aftermath of presidential vote could be long, drawn-out affair in search for successor to Hamid Karzai

Getting Afghans to vote for a new president will not be a problem, but after ballots have been cast – with no clear successor to Hamid Karzai likely – the new leader may not be found until the autumn, writes Kim Sengupta

The run-up to the presidential election in Afghanistan was dominated by bombings and shootings, some in the heart of Kabul: the Taliban has vowed to stop the voting taking place and the rise in murderous attacks was aimed at fulfilling that threat.

The latest shootings, of two highly respected journalists, Kathy Gannon and Anja Niedringhaus, at Khost, near the Pakistani border, by a man in police uniform, has once again focused international attention on the violence. Ms Niedringhaus, a photographer with the Associated Press, died in the attack, Ms Gannon, an AP correspondent, was injured.

Enough people, however, will turn up at the polls: the real problem lies in what happens afterwards.

The failure to get a clear-cut winner, as is likely to be the case, will necessitate a second round of voting, with results not becoming known for several months.

This will also mean that the signing of a treaty to keep a limited number of Western troops beyond the end of the year and, with them, continuing aid from abroad, will also be delayed at a time when the country can ill afford a leadership vacuum.

The election this time is likely to be better organised and more honestly conducted than the preceding one in 2009. On that day I was in the town of Nad-e-Ali, in Helmand, which came under persistent rocket and mortar fire from the insurgents. In the lulls in between, we saw ballot stuffing on behalf of the President, Hamid Karzai, on a heroic scale, a scenario replicated across swathes of the country.

On that occasion the vast majority of the votes from the ethnic Pashtun majority went to Mr Karzai, albeit  with the help of fraudulent counting. His main opponent, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, was left to rely on the minority northern Tajik, Uzbek and  Hazara constituency. Now the Pashtun vote is likely to be split between two of the frontrunners, Zalmay Rassoul, the former Foreign Minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former Finance Minister.

Dr Abdullah, of mixed Tajik and Pashtun parentage, has limited appeal among Pashtuns because of his history in the Northern Alliance during the civil wars and closeness to its commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud. A run-off scheduled after the last election was eventually cancelled when Dr Abdullah, declaring he had no faith in the system, pulled out. If no candidate wins over 50 per cent this time, a second round will be held by 28 May, with the results, and a new president, not unveiled until the autumn.


President Karzai, who could not stand for a third term under the constitution, refused to sign the bilateral agreement with Washington to allow the presence of around 11,000, mainly American, troops from Nato.

All three leading candidates have stated that they will be signatories; but, with the Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) mission finishing at the end of the year, military commanders have repeatedly pointed out they are in a state of limbo on planning.

Failure to ratify a treaty will have dire consequences.  The total number of Afghan military and police is expected to reach 352,000 in the next few months, but this has been done, partly, through reducing training time; the force lacks heavy weaponry and an effective air force.

Both Afghan and Western commanders point out that they will find it difficult to cope, without help, when Isaf operations end – with indications that the Taliban and the Haqqani Network in Pakistan are preparing to send hundreds across the border for a jihadist offensive.

The $10bn a year Afghanistan is due to get in civilian and military aid will also depend, donor states stress, on the treaty being ratified and the existence of a mechanism to control fraud. Without this injection of funds, the country’s economy is likely to collapse. President Karzai’s failure to sign the treaty had puzzled many in the West. It remains unclear just how much influence he will continue to wield after the election. It is widely believed that he forced his brother Qayum to drop out the race and arranged for General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, to become Dr Ghani’s running mate. At the same time, he remains close to Dr Rassoul, a long-term ally.

Both Dr Rassoul and Dr Ghani are said to have received funding from Mr Karzai for their campaign. Dr Ghani has already stated that if he wins, the former President would be given an advisory role in “national affairs, regional affairs and international affairs”. Dr Rassoul has stated that Mr Karzai will have an “important and practical” part to play in “bridging divisions” and taking a unified country forward.

The divisions between the men who want to take over from Mr Karzai do not show any signs of being bridged. Both the camps of Dr Ghani and Dr Abdullah are preparing the groundwork for lodging complaints if Dr Rassoul is declared to have topped the first-round polls or placed second.

Either place, say his opponents, will then leave Dr Rassoul in a position to use the Karzai apparatus to get the Pashtun vote behind him for the second round. There is enough ammunition present to raise doubts: 21 million voter cards have been issued for an electorate of between 10 and 12 million: ballot papers have been delivered to areas where election monitors are not likely to get access because of security reasons: the ballot papers will be ferried back for counting from many places by nothing more secure than donkey trains. The aftermath of the election is likely to be a long, drawn-out and acrimonious affair.