Foreign Policy Blogs

Intricacies of the Afghan Elections

Polls opened today in Afghanistan with Washington watching closely in hopes that elections are peaceful and leave a lasting mark of democracy for future state building. Pakistan has the same interest on perhaps an even more immediate level. Successful elections in Afghanistan are an integral ingredient to Pakistan’s domestic offensive in uprooting dangerous factions, expanding the economy, nurturing their democracy and stabilizing relations with neighbors. But if a candidate does not receive at least 50% of votes in this first round, “elections are pushed into a second, more unpredictable round of voting“. And second round elections might agitate an already rickety political climate amidst apprehensions of violence, which is entirely detrimental for Pakistan given domestic and regional circumstances right now.

On the domestic front, Pakistan’s military continues to make progress against dangerous groups. Weakened by the death (and or disappearance) of leader Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban in Pakistan “seems to be in disarray”. Meaning Islamabad’s offensive against factions this year are bearing fruits for the War on Terror and shifting toward more stability, hopefully for the long term. But if elections in Afghanistan are pushed to a second round, weeks of political irresolution can allow terrorist groups a climate of uncertainty within which to recuperate from losses and cause turmoil. Which since 2001 has shown that a dangerous spillover effect exists wherein Afghani militant groups shift in to Pakistan harboring themselves into the nebulous, virtually imperturbable border.

Broader regional considerations also factor into Pakistan’s hopes for stable elections. The spillover of militant groups since 9/11 intensifies Pakistan’s long desired interest in seeing a democratic, stable Afghanistan where refugees may repatriate. In fact, Pakistan hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world, an underreported story that actually helps explain why dangerous factions were able to develop in Pakistan. Millions of devastated Afghans, some armed and many destitute from fighting Soviets in the 1980’s found refuge from their war ravaged country in Pakistan. A mostly destitute population seeking refuge in a developing country with highly volatile political circumstances allowed violent sectarian and religiously extremist factions to exploit and recruit refugees to their cause. In addition, there are heavy economic costs for Pakistan in maintaining such a large number of refugees. Since last years military escalation in Afghanistan, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees explains that there is around 2 to 2.1 million Afghani Refugees now living in Pakistan. He said the United Nations planned to launch an emergency appeal for hundreds of millions of dollars needed to sustain refugees that have come in just this past year. So peaceful elections in a first round that move Afghanistan in a direction of democratic stability is integral to Pakistan’s security: they relieve Islamabad of a very costly responsibility to a long-standing refugee challenge.

Although some minority, yet raucous opinions say elections ushering democratic authority are not in Islamabad’s interest because they “diminish Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan”. Thus suggesting policymakers are strategically motivated to prevent losing an allegedly malleable buffer zone that Afghanistan serves against India. It’s an unlikely, poorly reasoned notion. It attempts to be qualified by citing Islamabad’s insistence on uprooting domestic militant/fundamentalist groups, so as to avoid confrontation with a supposed malleable buffer forces. But expecting policy makers to divert efforts from turmoil at home to external threats is a laughable assertion. Before taking care of neighboring militant groups whose primary focus is not on fighting Pakistanis, Islamabad legitimately devotes resources to uprooting domestic factions who pose an immediate threat. Suicide bombings have become an almost weekly recurrence in Pakistan and with that level of instability, faulting Pakistan for not doing enough to uproot neighboring terror is outrageous. Plus, NATO forces and amplified American presence in Afghanistan furthers the absurdity of such calls for Pakistan to ignore turmoil at home and focus on Afghanistan. And neither of these allegations logically indicate a Pakistani motivation for instability so as to use Afghanistan as a buffer zone.

But perhaps the most unreasonable way of supporting a notion that Pakistan lacks interest in successful elections refers to relations with India. Specifically, that Islamabad’s refusal to remove forces from the Indian border despite current spillover from Afghanistan indicates an excessive concern with an Indian threat. A few reasons why this is incorrect: firstly, referring again to amplified U.S. and current NATO presence and given an abundance of domestic threats that require Islamabad’s attention, removing troops from the Indian border to the Afghan border does little to help Pakistan now, (especially weighted against the risks of doing so). Secondly, even if troops from were redeployed, those forces are squarely trained/equipped to face a potential Indian threat, not in counterterrorism. Which became well known much to Washington’s dismay with the military’s many unsuccessful attempts at uprooting militants from the northern regions along the Afghan border.

Finally, a refusal to redeploy forces is not because of an excessive concern given the reality of current Indian-Pakistani relations. The Mumbai atrocities occurred less than a year ago and the aftermath saw a speedy, vehement escalation of tensions. Some Indian media and politicians fanned the flames, and when tensions rise between India and Pakistan, the world gets nervous. By way of a counterfactual, we can tie how these tensions relate to justifying Islamabad’s decision to maintain troops on the border: If, God Forbid, another atrocity took place on Indian soil since 11/26/08 and Pakistan had redeployed troops away from the border. The result could be an even further escalation of tensions. A terrifying potential  for confrontation ensues and Pakistan’s capacity to defend against an already far more immense Indian force is drastically diminished. Which itself has a potential to cause hasty, over offensive beahvior from either side. Basic lessons in Realism thus teach us that redeployment away from the Indian border is out of the question. Given history, and sensitive circumstances since 11/26 I think military strategy might advise the same. Thus from a Pakistani policymakers point of view, troops on the Indian border is a legitimate priority. If anything, one might even argue they deter confrontation.

So, allegations that Islamabad is not sufficiently committed to stable election processes in Afghanistan are just not reasonable. If anything, successful elections relieve Pakistan of deep social and economic costs through refugee repatriation. And from the Mumbai atrocities to countless civilians who suffer daily from terror and a climate of instability that allows violent factions to operate, a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan beginning with successful elections is very much in Pakistan’s interest.



Zainab Jeewanjee

Zainab Jeewanjee is a graduate of the Denver University's Korbel School of International Service, where she received a Masters of International Relations with a concentration in U.S. Foreign & Security Policy. Her area of focus is U.S. - Pakistan relations and she completed a senior thesis entitled U.S. Foreign Policy to Pakistan: History of of Bilateral Cooperation from Partition Through the Cold War as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University. Zainab is also sales director at Silicon Valley based Follow her on Twitter @Zainyjee