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Afghanistan: Analysts Mixed On Pakistani Elections' Impact On Regional Security

Demonstrators in Islamabad demanding free elections (AFP) There are no signs of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency abating along the Afghan-Pakistani border. If anything, the run-up to Pakistan's parliamentary vote has seen rising violence in the tribal regions, with scores killed in attacks in the last week alone.

That's a big concern across the border in Afghanistan, where some worry that flawed elections in Pakistan on February 18 might exacerbate a security situation already on razor's edge.

Publicly, the Taliban in Pakistan has announced a preelection cease-fire with the military. Yet a roadside bombing on February 13 killed two people and injured many more in the restive Swat district in northwest Pakistan. In the last week alone, at least 24 people have been killed in attacks.

But will the parliamentary elections make security better or worse?

Larry Robinson, a former U.S. diplomat in Islamabad, is a Washington-based South Asia analyst. He tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan a democratically elected Pakistani government could deal a major blow to the insurgency plaguing both Islamabad and neighboring Afghanistan.

"Over time, only that kind of [elected] government is going to have the broadly accepted credibility to tackle these very serious [security] problems that Pakistan and Afghanistan face," Robinson says. "But I think in the near term, the only serious impact, one way or the other, from the elections would be if the election is viewed as not having been credible and there is a widespread unrest and turmoil in Pakistan that will have a debilitating affect."

Fallout From Unfair Elections Feared

Analysts argue that Islamist militants in the short term will be the only victors should the election process prove to have been flawed. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf denies there will be irregularities in the process, but international observers say that the polls are unlikely to be free or fair.

If that's the case, Pakistan could descend into further chaos, analysts say. And instability in Pakistan would have negative repercussions for Kabul -- not only for Afghan security but for its economy, too.

The southern Pakistani seaport of Karachi is a major conduit for landlocked Afghanistan's exports and imports. While inflation and a record winter cold have already pushed many impoverished Afghans to the edge, instability in Pakistan would herald a new wave of inflation in food prices as Kabul imports essential commodities from its neighbor.

But Afghans are focused on the political fallout of the elections.

Ahmed Saidi, an Afghan analyst, says that violence and intimidation have overshadowed the Pakistani election process and that low voter turnout is expected to result in a split mandate for the various parties. That, in turn, might spell more instability in Pakistan and the region.

"After the Pakistani elections, I do not believe that any single political party will be able to form a government," he tells Radio Free Afghanistan. "These elections will not be free and fair and will in turn attract a lot of criticism [from all sides]."

But some observers are not so pessimistic. For example, they point to polls that suggest that the country's Islamist parties are expected to suffer heavy losses in the polls. That could help the government quell a Taliban insurgency long supported by Islamist parties such as Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islam (JUI).

Marvin Weinbaum, a South Asia expert at Washington's Middle East Institute, says that defeat by the Islamist parties could augur well for stability in Afghanistan because the winning parties could include the two main forces most likely to frown on the Taliban: the Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) of late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Awami National Party, a secular Pashtun party.

"If the JUI party, if it finds itself having to give up the control of the Northwest Frontier Province -- this could conceivably, if there were, say, an alliance between the PPP and the Awami National Party, this would be a combination which would look much less favorably [and] sympathetically at the insurgency in Afghanistan," Weinbaum says. "JUI has looked really quite sympathetically at those who are challenging the Kabul government. So this could really make quite a difference."

Does Elected Government In Pakistan Matter?

But Afghans are not quite so optimistic about a major postelection breakthrough in their relations with Pakistan, which they suspect harbors and even supports Taliban militants.

Ajaml Sohail, a leader of the Afghan Liberal Democratic Party, maintains that Pakistan's elected civilian governments historically have had little influence on Islamabad's foreign policy -- especially policies toward key neighbors Afghanistan and India.

"Even when [Pakistan] had so-called elected democratic governments, they worked under military influence," Sohail says. "This was the case in [the 1990s], when we saw that Nawaz Sharif headed an elected government but his policies toward India and Afghanistan were hegemonistic. Similarly, Benazir Bhutto headed a democratic [political] system but the overall control was in the hands of the military and the intelligence [services]."

If more turmoil follows the elections, the security of both Pakistan and Afghanistan looks set to be jeopardized.

Pakistani author and journalist Zahid Hussain says that the elections are not expected to enhance popular support for the war on terror, which many Pakistanis see as an alien battle being fought on their soil. Such perceptions will add to the postelection instability.

Hussain says the insurgency in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands has turned into a single war, with Pakistan -- not Afghanistan -- becoming its prime victim.

"If you see that last year more than 50 suicide-bombing attacks [took] place and most of them had targeted the [Pakistani] military," Hussain says. "So it shows that its not only the [Northwest] Frontier [Province] and the tribal regions but Islamabad and Rawalpindi had also become the main target of terrorist attacks. So it doesn't bode well for the war on extremism."

As the campaign reaches it climax, Pakistan's political parties appear more concerned with winning power than charting strategies to tackle the gathering storm of extremism.

Afghanistan, not to mention India and the United States, will be watching carefully.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.