There have been statements and speculations recently about a possible involvement of the Taleban in the recent Afghan parliamentary elections, directly or indirectly. So, let’s summarize what we have about this and see whether there was possibly was a ‘Taleban elections strategy’.
On 13 September, the UN Special Rep in Kabul Staffan de Mistura said in a Washington Postinterview, that ‘some [Taleban] are discreetly making overtures to candidates’ and that ‘insurgent leaders in Afghanistan could be trying to bolster their political standing in anticipation of a reconciliation process’ (these are quotes from the WP, not directly from the envoy). And he added (this time in a direct quote) that ‘[a]ny indication that they’re moving from bullets to ballots, as imperfect as it might be, is a good indicator’. He further compared this with Iraq: ‘That’s exactly the type of thing that happened in Iraq at a certain point […]. People started discussing, arguing, compromising, negotiating, making deals on a political level, using the political game plan rather than bombs and explosions. In that sense, these elections could be helpful’ (see the article here).
A few days later, after the poll was over, Joshua Foust was speculating about possible links between candidates and the insurgency and whether the ‘lowered levels of insecurity on [E-Day] Saturday’ were to be explained by candidates either ‘working with insurgent leaders for some reason, or insurgent groups […] fielding their own candidates for office’. Joshua closed by saying that ‘[t]here’s no evidence that actually happened, and we might never know if it did’ on the AfPak Channel (20 September 2010, see here).
First, I think we do not know nothing, although the picture by far is neither clear nor complete yet, as on other election-related matters. It is known that the Taleban officially had condemned the election as an exercise to justify what they call the foreign occupation of Afghanistan. Everyone involved with the elections – candidates, campaigners, IEC etc – has been declared a legitimate target by them. This is their official position.
But what happened ‘on the ground’? Did the Taleban really hit the elections? Here, the picture starts to be less coherent.
Indeed, it begins to transpire that there was much more violence on E-Day than initial impressions suggested. There were killings, threats, kidnappings and rocket attacks. Media and security people were busy counting the numbers of these incidents and of its victims. According to some, these numbers have indeed risen beyond what happened in 2009. But first these are quantitative data and secondly, we also should ask – as Christian Science Monitor’s Anand Gopal did (see here) – whether all reported incidents are attributable to the Taleban, even if they look like their modus operandi (which can easily be imitated).
At least from my point of observation on E-Day, Gardez, the Taleban and their local sub-networks did not meet the expectations. Expected multiple attacks in Gardez did not happen. The gravest incident was the killing of a high-ranking local police officer by an IED. But was that an attack against the elections or one against the police?
Interestingly enough, the insurgents launched a ‘combined attack’ with a vehicle and suicide-vest bearing infantry on a NATO base in Paktia, the Forward Operating Base Gardez (see here), on 24 September, i.e. only six days after the election happened. This could be a signal: Their priority target are the foreign forces, not Afghan voters or election personnel. In contrast, Kunduz province in the north experienced much more activity than expected. There had been reports that the Southeast-based Haqqani network had poured in fighters into that area; maybe, this limited its capacity to strike in their original area.
NATO said that insurgents in Laghman were preparing to disrupt the poll, while the governor of neighbouring Kunar said that the Taleban had agreed to tolerate the elections. From the north, IWPR reported that insurgents had been attempting to disrupt voting in the Pashtun-inhabited districts of Sholgara, Chahar Bolak, Chemtal and Kaldar in Balkh province. All this already points to different local approaches.
The same might be true on the ‘political’ side. There were definitely contacts between candidates and insurgents in many areas, but not the way de Mistura explained it. Rather than Taleban ‘making overtures to candidates’, it was the other way around: Candidates living in Taleban-controlled or –influenced areas contacted ‘their’ local Taleban to find out whether they could campaign in certain areas. Martine van Bijlert was quoting an example from Southern Afghanistan in an earlier blog, see here.
‘I talked to the Taleban commander in my area about the elections, he is from my tribe. My rival in the area talked to his Taleban. Let’s see what happens.’
That does not automatically mean that those candidates are part of a Taleban agenda. They simply try to protect themselves. To assume that they are ‘working with’ the insurgents in a collaborational ‘Trojan horse’ way, as Joshua Foust insinuated, might be the case here and there (there is a Paktika candidate said to have good relations t the Taleban) – but this we really can’t say for sure. That some candidates might indeed be approached by insurgents as go-betweens, absolutely cannot be excluded.
Meanwhile, one detail has widely escaped media attention: the candidacy of former Taleban Deputy Minister for Martyrs and Refugees Rahmatullah Wahedyar(*) in Paktia province. His poster shows the following ‘programme’: ‘With the grace of Allah, for peace, security, progress, education, national unity and rule of law’.
Wahedyar was a leading member of Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami, one of the seven formerly Peshawar-based mujahedin groups. And he is from Zurmat district, a stronghold of the Taleban or – to be more precise – the Mansur network, one of its semi-autonomous components; the Mansur network is a breakaway group of Harakat.
Wahedyar has not been with the Taleban post-2001. He belonged to a group of former Taleban officials that recreated a 1960s group called Khuddam ul-Furqan (Servants of Providence) in early 2001 in Pakistan and went to Kabul to seek registration to register it as a party. Although this was denied, the group that also included former Taleban deputy education minister Arsala Rahmani, former Taleban ‘UN ambassador’ Abdul Hakim Mujahed and a former Taleban diplomat in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan Habibullah Fouzi accepted an amnesty by President Karzai and settled in Kabul, as other individual former Taleban had done, most prominently former Foreign Minister Mulla Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil and former Pakistan ambassador Maulawi Abdul Salam Za’if. Ever since, this small group of ‘reconciled’ Taleban were seen as a barometer for what the ‘real’ Taleban might think.
The candidacy of Wahedyar, who had not been politically active as visibly as others from the group, most prominently its ‘leader’ or ‘elder’ Arsala Rahmani (appointed a Senator by President Karzai in 2005), constitutes the most promising election campaign of any of the former Taleban, after Mutawakkil failed in 2005, just getting 1,488 votes (0.9 per cent) in Kandahar, after a low-profile campaign that did not look as if he was convinced himself that this was a good idea.
Wahedyar was not attacked when campaigning in Zurmat (and he went there several times), neither were his posters there torn down. Actually some say, they were the only ones kept hanging in Zurmat. This is particularly surprising – and might be a sign – when you remember that the Taleban were quite violently preventing everyone in this district to cast his or her vote in the 2009 election; there were armed road blocks and the Zurmat Taleban were actually checking people for inked fingers. But it needs to be noted that the hurdle to hurt him (even if he had not been endorsed) as a former member of the Mansur group, probably with many friends among the still active ones, would be rather high.
Does this mean that Wahedyar is ‘the Taleban’s candidate’? And that the Taleban have changed their mind since their hostile anti-election statement? Most probably not. It can be assumed, though, that Wahedyar has sounded out the local Taleban leaders before his campaign as other candidates did in other areas. It can also be assumed that the Taleban will carefully watch what Wahedyar will do in case he is elected and how other actors react to him, including those involved in reconciliation efforts.
Apart from Wahedyar, the former Taleban minister for planning, Sa’dullah Sa’id, was also running, in Khost province. He did not belong to the group of ‘reconciled’ Taleban residing in Kabul but he had remained in the Southeast where he had started and registered a small party with a long name in which he tried to bring together former mujahedin, both who had and who had not joined the Taleban, the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan’s Mujahed People.
But Sa’id was killed when campaigning in Mandozai district on 23 July (see also our earlier blog ‘Campaign Trail 6/1: Loya Paktia, elections without campaign and (many) voters’). A bomb was placed under the menbar of the local mosque from which he was giving a sermon. It could be speculated now that he was killed by former comrades who have adopted an anti-election position, after all the threats uttered. However, the Taleban did not claim this high-value assassination, and people I have talked to in the Southeast agree that it was a ‘candidate-to-candidate’ job (or a revenge of former communists). By the way, even human rights officials in the region confirmed that he was ‘a good man’ – apparently breaking the rule laid down in a Pashtun proverb that ‘there is no bad man amongst the dead, and no good one amongst the living’. And judging from meetings with him while he was still in office I also would have put him into the ‘moderate’ camp.
At the same time, we also should note that prominent ‘reconciled’ Taleban like Mutawakkil or others known for connections with them and sitting in the outgoing Wolesi Jirga like Maulawi Hanif Shah from Khost, did not run again. We have not heard them commenting about their reasons. Maybe, Mutawakkil did not want to end up with another marginal result. Maybe, Hanif was sick and tired from a series of house searches by US troops against which his parliamentary immunity did not protect him (and also too old now) (**). Or maybe, the parliament just is not the place to be anymore, at least for political activities linked with ‘reconciliation’.
Although Mutawakkil, Za’if and the members of the Arsala-led group have been speculated to become members in the new High Council for Peace, set up by President Karzai in the follow-up to the Peace Jirga, on some Afghan websites, it appears that at least Mutawakkil and Za’if prefer to remain outside of it as they had not taken up an invitation to the Peace Jirga itself. (Its membership has not been announced yet, mainly because two heavyweights – ex-Presidents Rabbani and Mujaddedi – are still competing for the chair at its top.) Arsala and the former Khuddam ul-Furqan group might.
So, much on the issue of whether there was a unified Taleban election strategy or not needs to remain open. But a few things are clear. First, it is not sufficient to look at Taleban statements alone to be able to judge what they really are up to. Second, knowledge about who is who during the election also might allow us to pick up possible signals from within the movement, or at least parts of it. Maybe, Wahedyar’s campaign is one. Third, to assume that there will be a ‘secret’ Taleban faction in the coming parliament would go too far. (There was none in the outgoing parliament.) Fourth, the Taleban are keeping all their options open – as everyone else does in Afghanistan.
The last word belongs to sitting Ghazni MP Daud Sultanzoy who runs again this year: The Taleban are ‘keeping their military options open and gently feeling their way into the political system, opening their horizons and seeing what’s there.’ And even the ‘feeling their way into [italics by me] the political system’ might be already one degree too strong.
(*) He was full minister with the same portfolio also in the pre-Taleban Rabbani cabinet.
(**) I do not count Musa Hotak, also a former Taleban minister who runs again in Wardak, in this group. He is linked with the mainstream Harakat(i.e. its faction which is registered as a party in Kabul) and his political past goes back to pre-Taleban mujahedin times. I would very casually call him a semi-Taleb – meaning, people like him (Haqqani the Elder also belongs to them) have kept their strong pre-Taleban identities even after joining the movement.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020