As Afghanistan moves toward April 5 elections for president and provincial councils, key questions loom: Among them, just what will the Taliban do to disrupt or distort that nation’s exercise in democratically selecting its leadership, and what might those efforts accomplish?

Afghan National Army Lt. Col. Mohammad Daowood interrogates a villager about the location of improvised explosive devices planted by the Taliban in Afghanistan's Wardak province, Nov. 10, 2013. Defense of Highway 1, a 1,300-mile ring road vital to commerce and daily life around the country, has been left to Afghan forces, but the road is a tempting target for both insurgents and ordinary criminals.
Photo Credit: The New York Times/Daniel Berehulak

Two Peace Briefs recently published by the Institute lay out contrasting takes on those questions. Yet taken together, they illuminate an urgent issue that is shrouded by several factors: rapidly evolving circumstances, the internal complexity of the Taliban and the sheer opacity of its decision-making and follow-through. These two pieces offer much for anyone trying to understand Afghanistan’s internal conflict at a critical moment in its history.

U.S. and allied governments are focused on the April political contests as a vital opportunity for the Afghan government to demonstrate its legitimacy as the presidency of Hamid Karzai ends and as foreign military forces fighting alongside the Afghan Army prepare to withdraw. It is to be the first democratic transfer of power from one Afghan president to another, and relative success could provide a boost to the country’s stability as the United States and others end combat operations and Afghan forces take on full security responsibilities.

If Afghanistan can overcome logistical challenges, possible attempts at vote manipulation and Taliban threats and still run generally credible and transparent elections, then the government’s standing among Afghans will be strengthened, as will its position in future peace talks with the Taliban, should they happen.

The general Taliban line has been that elections cannot be allowed as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan and that the United States, in particular, will have a dominant hand in shaping the outcome.

Indications of the violence to come have appeared even two months before the polls open. On February 1, two members of the campaign team of former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, one of the leading candidates to succeed Karzai, were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in the city of Herat.

“The attack came at a critical moment for Afghanistan on the eve of the election campaign,” said a statement issued by United Nations Special Representative Jan Kubis. “This cowardly action constitutes a violent intimidation of electoral candidates and their supporters, and cannot be tolerated.” Kubis called for heightened vigilance in the weeks before the elections and for efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The USIP Peace Briefs, in differing ways, anticipate moves by at least parts of the Taliban to launch violent, election-related attacks.

In the first paper, "Electoral Offensive: Taliban Planning for Afghanistan's 2014 National Elections," authors Antonio Giustozzi and Casey Garret Johnson note that “the Taliban have more resources and are better organized to disrupt Afghanistan’s 2014 national elections than was the case in any of the country’s last four elections. Still, there are disagreements between insurgent leaders about carrying out a campaign of violence and intimidation.”

Giustozzi, an independent researcher and expert on the Taliban who is associated with King’s College London, and Johnson, a senior program officer at USIP, offer a fascinating glimpse into Taliban thinking on the election that is based on more than 50 interviews last spring with Taliban foot soldiers, subcommanders and leaders. What they reveal is more internal disagreement—suggestive of widely varying levels of anti-election activity—than might be expected.

One group of Taliban led by Akhtar Mansur and tied to the Quetta Shura leaned toward a more conciliatory approach, at least for a period of time, Giustozzi and Johnson say. Some Taliban even met with Afghan government figures “to discuss allowing the polls to go forward.” However, disrupting the election is favored by Taliban military commander Zakir and the Peshawar Shura, the authors say. Their research indicates that the Peshawar group is more unified in its stand against elections and better funded.

The Taliban have created a network of so-called “electoral commissions” in part to convince influential elders not to vote in elections. However, in at least some areas, Taliban operatives bought rather than destroyed voters’ cards, copied them and returned them to elders with instructions to wait for orders, according to the Giustozzi-Johnson paper. That leaves at least the possibility that Taliban in some areas will seek to influence instead of undermine elections.

Adding further uncertainty, fighters in some areas might cut local deals with candidates or power brokers in which the Taliban refrain from election attacks. That sort of bargaining has occurred in past elections, they say.

In general, “the prospect of disruption is particularly worrying because Taliban influence is greatest in the Pashtun south and east. The suppression of turnout in Pashtun areas could lead to an indefinite suspension of the polls or an outcome seen as illegitimate by those unable to vote,” the authors say. Attributing attacks to particular Taliban factions will also be difficult, in practice.

The second Peace Brief, "The Taliban's View of the 2014 Elections," observes that the Taliban publicly reject the legitimacy of the elections and have ordered their disruption—but have also “left field commanders with wide discretion on how to go about doing so.”

This piece is written by Michael Semple, a visiting professor and conflict specialist at Queen’s University Belfast, and draws on interviews with Taliban conducted between November and January.

Semple concludes that within the Taliban there is “no scope for any faction to cooperate” with the election process, though many follow the political races and comment on them in ways similar to the political class in Kabul. And, he argues, whatever intensity of violence emerges prior to the election, it is unlikely to “derail the overall process.”

The Taliban movement is hierarchical, with Mullah Omar retaining supreme authority. At all levels, Semple notes, Taliban say they are “boycotting” the elections.

But counter to the hierarchical tendency, the movement also functions like “a fraternity [which] means that local commanders and officials can use a high degree of discretion in choosing how they will conduct this opposition [to the elections],” Semple explains. That flexibility, or variation, in how the contests are opposed is a point of agreement with Giustozzi and Johnson. This aspect of Taliban structure will mean significant uncertainty about the scope of anti-election activity, probably up to the last moment.

Indeed, Semple says that some Taliban field commanders in eastern Afghanistan “expressed dissent” about general guidance to proceed with disrupting the elections, reportedly because they depend upon “maintaining local popular consent” to operate in some areas and attacks on civilians would undermine that. At the same time, in some provinces such as Ghazni, Afghan media have described cases of Taliban targeting civilians who have registered to vote. Such violence, Semple says, did not succeed in derailing the national voter registration campaign, in which 3.4 million additional cards were handed out last year.

He also refers to “rifts between pragmatists and hardliners” within the movement over whether to plan attacks on provincial council candidates.

Semple suggests that a 25 percent rise in violent incidents during the election period over what would have happened anyway is a “realistic” expectation. “Groups in the provinces will carry out more attacks than they would have otherwise, but the increase in violence will be less dramatic and widespread than hoped for by Taliban hardliners or predicted by their propagandists,” Semple writes.

Voting would likely be reduced in the rural south, southeast and east and generally in Pashtun areas, where the Taliban has more influence.

Semple believes that “the most significant impact of Taliban pressure” ultimately may not be the mayhem they unleash but rather the opportunities for electoral fraud they creates. How? The threat of Taliban attacks “will help create a category of stations which are difficult to monitor and inaccessible to voters and polling agents.” Any efforts to commit large-scale voting fraud, he argues, are likely to be concentrated in those areas.

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