Voters in Afghanistan were heading to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president, as the Taliban threatened to step up attacks following the abrupt breakdown of US peace talks.
They are faced with a choice between incumbent Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah, who served as chief executive in a power-sharing government with Mr Ghani following contested polls in 2014.
Many of Afghanistan’s 9m registered voters are expected to stay home and hundreds of polling stations are closed after the Taliban threatened to disrupt the election. In the weeks leading up to the vote, the Taliban have launched deadly attacks in Kabul and killed over 20 people at one of Mr Ghani’s campaign rallies.
Delayed twice over security concerns, the election is taking place after US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement on September 7 that he had called and then cancelled a secret meeting between the Taliban and Afghan government, putting months of negotiations led by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on hold.
The eventual winner will have to protect Kabul’s interests in the US-Taliban peace talks, if and when they restart, and potentially craft a power-sharing agreement with the Islamists, an accord that could take years to finalise.
If no candidate takes the 51 per cent of the vote required to win, there will be a second round of voting — scheduled to take place in November between the two most popular candidates.
That scenario could see a repeat of the last election, which plunged the country into chaos when Mr Abdullah refused to concede defeat and there were accusations of fraud on both sides. US secretary of state John Kerry was forced to step in and help broker a national unity government.
Five years later, it is unclear whether the US would play the same role if the results are disputed. Both candidates have ruled out another unity government. “The bigger threat to the elections is who is going to mediate if the outcome is seen as problematic?” said Hameed Hakimi, research associate at Chatham House. “President Obama’s team were quite active, but the current administration’s approach is very different.”
In the week before the vote, Washington took action on corruption in Mr Ghani’s government. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo cut $100m in aid, saying in a statement that “identified Afghan government corruption and financial mismanagement” resulted in the funding cut.
“The Trump administration wants to send a message to all electoral candidates and to the Afghan political class that it won’t write blank checks,” said Michael Kugelman, South Asia specialist at the US-based Wilson Center think-tank, “it will demand accountability from whatever government is next in power.”
After years of violence, many in Afghanistan hope that the election can be over quickly so that the peace talks resume. “People just have a wait-and-see attitude at the moment,” said Anthony Barned, chief executive of the Afghanistan International Bank, a commercial bank in Afghanistan, “the hope we all have is that we do get a peace agreement.”