In the latest blow to Afghan peace prospects, district governor and former senator Qazi Abdul Hai has defected to the Taliban in the northern province of Sar-e-Pol — reportedly the highest-ranking civilian official to do so.
Afghan officials were quick to dismiss the defection as inconsequential, citing Hai’s limited influence, but the move points to a worrying trend. In 2012, Afghan police saw dozens of Taliban defections, including the mass defection of a senior commander and his 13 junior officers in Farah province, and 11 police defections in Helmand. Since NATO troops handed over control of national security to Afghan forces this spring, casualty and desertion rates have soared; the latter ranges between 7 to 10%. Soldiers aren’t the only ones leaving — out of 105 Afghan diplomats deployed abroad, only five returned for new assignments this summer.
The latest defection comes at a critical juncture. Afghan troops are bracing for the withdrawal of foreign forces by the end of December 2014; national elections are approaching as well as President Hamid Karzai prepares to step down this April after two terms. The first deadline has galvanized the Taliban, which intensified its attacks against poorly trained — and dwindling — Afghan troops this spring. The second is providing an opportunity to further threaten Afghanistan’s nascent democracy. On Wednesday, an insurgent killed a top election official, two days after the national election season kicked off.
With Hai — even if he is far from the biggest player in Sar-e-Pol province — the Taliban looks to have found a multi-pronged tool to manipulate public perception in its favor. The group has already posted a video online of Hai condemning the “corrupt face” of Afghanistan’s government and its Western backers. The stratagem could bear fruit. Many Afghans remain uneasy with the presence of American troops, a sentiment reinforced by allegations of torture and murder leveled against U.S. Special Forces stationed in Wardak province in early 2013. (The charges prompted anti-U.S. rallies and the units’ unceremonious booting from the region, despite the unpreparedness of local forces to cope with insecurity.)
Hai’s comments also play off growing public frustration with government corruption. Indeed, such frustrations have driven some Afghans to turn to the Taliban’s Islamic courts, in lieu of corrupt and inefficient government institutions. Even his ethnicity and home province – Hai belongs to the Aimaq minority — could further the Taliban mission to expand its Pashtun support base in south Afghanistan, in a maneuver reminiscent of the political scrambling in Kabul to build coalitions with cross-ethnic appeal.
Yet the two main political alliances, the National Understanding Forum and the Afghanistan Electoral Alliance, have struggled to recruit a multi-ethnic roster ahead of the October deadline for presidential candidate registrations. Meaning that though the Taliban still has a ways to go to soften its bloodthirsty image — here easing off on civilian attacks is key — it is shaping up to be the best-organized coalition going into Afghanistan’s most crucial election season in a decade. And unlike Afghan forces, its recruitment rate is on the rise.