Ashraf Ghani and Zalmay Rassoul have emerged as the new frontrunners only days before the Afghan elections takes place on April 5, according to polls released on Monday. They are notably the only ethnically pure Pashtun candidates (other than the half-Tajik, half-Pashtun Dr. Abdullah Abdullah). 42% of Afghanistan is ethnically Pashtun, with other significant groups like Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks making up a combined 45%. Prominent figures from these groups, however, are rarely in agreement, and in the case of the election, are running against one another politically (as running mates).
Ashraf Ghani joined with Abdul Rashid Dostum, the notable Uzbek warlord (whom he called “a butcher” at the height of the American occupation in 2004). Ghani is highly respected both within and outside of Afghanistan for his previous jobs as a World Bank official, Afghan finance minister for Karzai’s government, and advocate of human rights. The fact that he chose Dostum, a man who is accused of a string of war crimes, is revealing. Candidates have focused on knitting together alliances that they would otherwise eschew for the sake of maintaining tenuous power over the country.
Both Ghani and Rassoul are notably former members of Karzai’s cabinet. Commentators have speculated that their election would allow Karzai to maintain a modicum of unofficial power in the country, much as former Vice President Mohmmed Fahim did. All of this has sidestepped the candidate whom many believed was the frontrunner at the beginning of the elections, Abdullah Abdullah. While he was foreign minister in Karzai’s first cabinet, he ran against him in the 2009 elections and accused him multiple times of voter fraud.
- The prominent credit-rating agency, Fitch, has downgraded Kazakhstan’s Alliance Bank JSC’s bank, in reflection of the fact that Alliance has no plans to make outstanding payment during the 10-day grace period given by the ruling of the financial court of Almaty on 3 March. This comes after the bank materially reduced its liabilities under its debt obligations in January. The American/British ratings agency stated that the downgrade had more to do with Kazakhstan’s ongoing currency crisis and nothing to do with sanctions against Russia.
- Border crossings will be reopened between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the next few days. The past few months have seen rocky relations between the two countries, whose militaries clashed in January over the construction of a new highway in disputed areas. Talks between the two countries have been ongoing since the January clashes.
- Another Russian rocket has crashed in Kyrgyzstan, the second in three months. The rocket’s purpose was designated for weather and meteorological studies. The Kazakh Defense Ministry stated it would suspend all Russian missile experiments on leased testing fields in Kazkahstan until the cause of the crash is determined. The feared environmental impact of these rocket crashes has been cited numerous times by Kazakh activists. Meanwhile, Russian long-range missiles have been moved to the Kazakh border, whose stated purpose is to monitor the security situation in Afghanistan.
- Chinese defense minister Chang Wanguan has pledged to strengthen Tajikistan’a defense capacity in the form of “hundreds of millions of dollars” in military aid. If the Chinese follow through on their promise, this represents a radical shift in policy. Economic ties in the form of pipelines, energy development, and railways have been the primary ways that China has interacted with Central Asia in the past, and its military expansion could be seen as a move to enhance security in the wake of an American vacuum after withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year.