With the successful conclusion of the polling phase of the Afghan elections, attention now shifts to who might win and what the winner might do regarding some key policy issues. Very (very!) early trends suggest that Abdullah Abdullah is the front runner, but it will be a while before the dust settles on this one.
My take on the implications of the Afghan elections was published in Economic Times today and is reproduced below:
Afghan Polls Hold Hope; Real Test To Come When Taliban Step Up Their Attacks
The just-concluded Afghan elections surprised most observers. The first surprise was that it was held at all because many had a sneaking suspicion that President Hamid Karzai would find some excuse to postpone or cancel the polls to hang on to power. He has already served two terms and, under the Afghan constitution, cannot have a third term.
The second surprise was the turnout for the polls, which early estimates suggest to be about 58 per cent. This is almost twice the turnout in the 2009 election. The biggest surprise of all was how successful the Afghan and foreign security agencies were in preventing the Taliban from disrupting the polls.
This has implications for the future: it does suggest that the Afghan security forces are somewhat more competent than they have so far been given credit for. But whether the Afghan security forces have become capable enough to hold the Taliban at bay after foreign forces leave is still open to question.
It will be a while before we know who won the elections. But all three top presidential contenders — Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Zalmai Rassoul — have declared that they would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US that would leave several thousand American soldiers in Afghanistan after 2014, mainly for training the Afghan security forces and preventing an al-Qaeda resurgence.
A clean transfer of power could considerably ease US-Afghan relations which have been strained because of Karzai's refusal to sign the BSA.
A new president could begin with a clean slate. But the main question is what this election means for Afghan stability and its impact on the region and, most importantly, on Indian security.
There is fairly strong consensus among Afghanistan's leading presidential contenders on major foreign policy questions though the main issue is not what they want to see happen but whether they are in any position to do anything about what might actually happen.
Foreign forces have already handed over most security operations to the Afghans, but the real test will come by next year when the Taliban can be expected to step up their attacks after most foreign forces withdraw. The Taliban might not even wait that long.
According to Afghan intelligence reports, Taliban have asked madrasas in Pakistan to close early this year so that their students can head to Afghanistan to fight. There is little doubt that as foreign forces leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, Pakistan will make an all-out effort to ensure a Taliban victory. For Islamabad, this will be the culmination of 10 years of effort to ensure that they control Afghanistan.
An Anti-Taliban Alliance
India is not alone in fearing a Taliban takeover in Kabul, though it is India that will suffer the most if that unfortunate eventuality were to come to pass. Arraigned alongside India will be a motley alliance that includes the strangest bedfellows that only the Great Game could have brought together: the Iranians, the Russians and the West.
New Delhi is uniquely positioned to coordinate such an anti-Taliban effort because it alone enjoys good relations with all of these players. Until now, Indian policy has been constrained by Washington, which was worried about Pakistani reaction to any Indian role in the country.
The next government in New Delhi will need to be much more proactive in helping Afghan security forces fight the Taliban menace. India also needs to plan for the possibility of the Taliban taking over Kabul, building up a potential new Northern alliance for dealing with such an eventuality.
India has invested almost $2 billion in building Afghanistan's infrastructure and enjoys a good measure of soft power there. But soft power is no match for Taliban firepower. The consequences of another Taliban government will be disastrous for Afghanistan, India and the region.