Campaign season begins in earnest Sunday, exactly two months ahead of the poll, when 17 hopefuls will try to beat President Ashraf Ghani as he seeks a second term.
The cast of contenders – all men – includes a former warlord accused of killing thousands, the brother of a mujahideen icon, and a bitter rival seeking retribution.
Here is a look at the key issues:
What’s at stake?
This year’s election comes at a crucial moment. The Taliban, who are not taking part, think they are on the verge of beating the United States after nearly 18 years of war.
The US is negotiating for a deal that would see foreign forces pull out of the country in return for various Taliban security guarantees, including a pledge that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for terror groups.
Washington wants a deal by September 1, but this is unlikely given the complexities and sticking points involved.
This means Afghanistan’s next president must figure out how to deal with the Taliban, who steadfastly have refused to negotiate with the Kabul government.
It is unclear what a final peace settlement could look like.
Everything, potentially, could be up for grabs: women’s rights, personal freedoms, the constitution itself.
EU supports valid, transparent elections in Afghanistan,,https://t.co/PbdQAr7O26
— The Kabul Times (@thekabultimes) July 25, 2019
Many Afghans fear a quick return to Taliban rule or a spiraling civil war.
Afghanistan’s lackluster economy and entrenched corruption will likely take a back seat to the pressing security situation.
The kick off to the campaign season also comes amid a wider surge in violence in Kabul and around Afghanistan, where the war is taking a continued toll even amid the US-led effort to forge a deal with the Taliban.
At least 10 people – including several women and a child – were killed and 41 others wounded by a series of blasts that rocked the Afghan capital early Thursday, while further east in Nangarhar province nine family members were killed as they headed to a wedding.
What’s the process?
Unless a candidate wins a majority on September 28, voting will go to a second round, probably in late November.
One crucial issue is that the elections happen at all.
They have already been postponed twice this year and further delays could lead to more unrest, as Ghani’s rivals are furious about the unexpected extension to his term.
Some observers have said this year’s electoral delays were to make room for US-Taliban talks, but more likely it was down to bungling by election officials.
Some nine million people have registered to vote but allegations persist that some of those are “ghost” voters.
Some candidates have already threatened to boycott the election because they say Ghani is using his position to gain an unfair advantage.
Who are the frontrunners?
Top among Ghani’s rivals is Abdullah Abdullah, currently serving as the president’s own chief executive under an awkward power-sharing arrangement brokered by the US after the fraud-tinged 2014 election.
Abdullah, who also lost against Hamid Karzai in 2009, has a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother, so is likely to draw support from both groups – a key factor in a nation riven by regional and ethnic rivalries.
Ghani, a Pashtun, appears to have also learned the importance of an inclusive cabinet with all the main Afghan ethnicities – and women. Observers say the race is his to lose.
Another frontrunner is Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Ghani’s former national security advisor, and the former interior minister under Karzai.
Other contenders include Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord accused of war crimes and British-educated Ahmad Wali Massoud, the brother of legendary anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud.
What do Afghans think?
Many are despondent about the prospects of a fair election, and worry about a repeat of the sort of violent attacks on previous polls by the Taliban and other insurgent groups trying to undermine Afghanistan’s fragile democracy.
— TOLOnews (@TOLOnews) July 25, 2019
The parliamentary elections last October were plagued with problems with voting machines, voter registrations and allegations of ballot stuffing.
“I cast my votes in two previous elections, but our votes were not counted. This time I am not keen to vote because the result will be fraudulent again,” 30-year-old Mohammad Daud said.
“We have braved the Taliban and… (Islamic State) attacks during elections, but the election results have once again disappointed us.”
GVS News Desk Adds:
It is in this complex background that talks between the US and Pakistan took place in Washington in the third week of July 2019. Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan was accompanied by his top civil and military leadership to meet President Trump’s team. Apart from foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi and other cabinet members and advisers, Gen. Bajwa, Pakistan’s Army Chief, Gen. Faiz Hamid, new DG ISI and Gen. Asif Ghafoor, DG ISPR accompanied Prime Minister. This was probably the first time that Pakistan’s top military leadership joined in discussions at this level.
While details are either not known or sketchy at this moment it is clear that Afghanistan remained the main focus. Trump and his close advisers want to develop an enabling environment in which most US troops can pull out without cresting a destabilization. Many in the US military, state department and intelligence community are not convinced. They want to maintain a sizable presence and they will like to avoid any declared time schedule for withdrawal. President Trump will thus like Pakistan to persuade Taliban for direct talks with the Kabul government of President Ashraf Ghani before the September elections.
Regional experts based in Islamabad think that the US will like Taliban to join a Kabul government without the US giving out a definite time schedule for total withdrawal. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan was generously praised by the US Senate and President Trump and PM Imran Khan has committed himself to try his best to persuade Afghan Taliban for direct talks with Kabul. However this may not be easy. Taliban in recent years have been courted by Russia with China’s tacit support. Doha is involved in providing space for Taliban offices from where they interact with the US and the world. So there are many stake holders and Taliban are not wholly and solely dependent on Pakistan.
Most in Washington however still think that Pakistan can flex Taliban to negotiation table with desired results. This chasm between the US expectations and ground realities may become troublesome before the September elections – if they are held in time. These elections have been delayed twice in the last 10 months or so.
AFP with additional input by GVS NewsDesk