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South Asia

Ashraf Ghani’s Main Rival Faces Political Setback

Hanif Atmar suspends his campaign. That may signal that Afghanistan’s presidential elections are off or ethnic strife lies ahead for the country.

Hanif Atmar in a meeting at the Pentagon on Feb. 26, 2009. (Image Credit: U.S. Department of Defense)
Hanif Atmar in a meeting at the Pentagon on Feb. 26, 2009. (Image Credit: U.S. Department of Defense)

Former Afghan interior minister Hanif Atmar suspended his presidential campaign on Thursday as both the fate of the ticket he’s formed and the elections as a whole both face uncertainty. It is unclear which factor ultimately drove Atmar’s decision to pause campaigning.

Afghanistan’s presidential elections scheduled for September 28 could be delayed for the third time as the United States and the Taliban near a preliminary deal that would involve the withdrawal of American forces in exchange for a partial or full ceasefire and the addressing of U.S. counterterrorism concerns.

Campaigning officially kicked off late last month with a deadly Taliban attack on the office of Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan spy chief and running mate of incumbent President Ashraf Ghani. Public enthusiasm for the polls is low, with 57 percent of those polled in a survey by the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan stating that they would not vote in the presidential elections.

Whether or not the polls take place, the apparent unraveling of Atmar’s ticket is a warning sign of trouble ahead. Should the U.S. and the Taliban come to an agreement in the coming days and weeks, an intra-Afghan dialogue is expected to begin. But there are deep divisions among Afghans who recognize the present constitution. Ethnic Pashtuns—who make up a plurality of Afghans—favor strong central rule, while non-Pashtuns have called for decentralization. Atmar, a Pashtun, led a ticket consisting of former law minister Younus Qanooni (a Tajik) and Muhammad Mohaqiq (a Hazara Shia) and had the support of northern strongman Atta Noor—also a Tajik.

To form the coalition, Atmar accepted the demands of his non-Pashtun running mates to push forward constitutional reforms that would allow for decentralization. But he has since reneged on those commitments, which has helped lead to the unraveling of his alliance.

Atmar’s backtracking on the question of reform mirrors the behavior of President Ghani, who agreed to initiate constitutional reforms as part of his 2014 power-sharing agreement with his opponent Dr. Abdullah. Ghani, however, quickly sidelined Abdullah and in his five years in office has shown no desire to initiate the promised reforms.

So as the U.S.-Taliban talks head into their final stretch, there are two main sets of barriers to political stability in Afghanistan: getting the Taliban to talk to those who recognize the present constitution of Afghanistan and addressing the growing political divide between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns. Trump, however, has no appetite for nation-building. And so it is up to the Afghans to solve the problem of power-sharing on their own.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News and host of The Pivot podcast. He's contributed to publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, and POLITICO Magazine, and has appeared on broadcast outlets such as Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio. Rafiq is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

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