Afghan President Ashraf Ghani probably is keeping his fingers crossed that the elections will take place as scheduled on September 28, 2019 despite the increasing violence and the threat from the Taliban. In a sense, President Donald Trump’s sudden aborting of the talks with the Taliban had vindicated Ghani who had consistently maintained that the elections must be held on the scheduled date and that any deal struck with the Taliban without the inclusion of the elected Afghan government in the negotiations, would not be legitimate. In an interview to ToloNews TV, Ghani said he would not accept a delay in the Sept. 28 polls even if the insurgents were to announce a cease-fire. The Taliban, he said, is “a part of this country, but they are not the determinant of the fate of this country.” He said his job as president is “to save the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan . . . to save the system at any cost.”

His stand on the holding of elections had been endorsed by the European Union’s special envoy for Afghanistan Roland Kobia who said presidential elections must be held this month as the country needed a political leadership that had received a renewed democratic mandate from its citizens. Most of the other candidates and even some American officials had been arguing for a postponement of the elections to prevent a new government jeopardising the “peace process”. Abdullah Abdullah had announced he would opt out of the elections if it helped the peace process. Except for a handful of the 18 candidates, the others had not even bothered to undertake public campaigning. Former President Hamid Karzai had contributed his two bits to the debate stating that holding the vote now "is like asking a heart patient to run a marathon" and the polls could threaten the nation’s best chance of achieving peace with the Taliban.

Ashraf Ghani faces 16 opponents with former National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar dropping out of the race. Atmar’s move coincided with his deputy running mate Mohammad Mohaqiq head of Wahdat-i-Islami joining the Stability and Convergence team led by Abdullah Abdullah.

The latest reports suggest that like the last elections, the contest would be between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar a distant third. Many expect Ghani to win, despite the stagnation of the economy, continuing corruption and violence, as he is seen even by his critics as incorruptible and erudite. He has also been credited with having introduced anti-corruption policies, opening economic corridors with regional powers, and appointing young and educated Afghans in top government positions.

The campaign has been marked by personal attacks with Abdullah Abdullah who held rallies in Kabul and several provinces, attacking Ghani with bitterly and warning that he might steal the election. He called Ghani a liar, a fraudster and an absconder in a supposed live television debate which Ghani did not attend suspecting the programme would be biased against him.

At his campaign rallies the President has promised to introduce measures to prevent civilian casualties in the ongoing war against militants. He said that new steps to protect civilians were being implemented and he had introduced several “checks and balances” to stop night raids and attacks leading to loss of innocent lives. He had also promised to “give every home electricity” and deliver a “sustainable” and “Islamic” peace if he were to win the Sept. 28 election.

Ghani’s critics believe that his pronouncements are a charade to cement his power and revive his stature, at home and abroad, after being sidelined from the U.S.-Taliban talks. He has adopted a populist style to remake his image of being aloof and also to try and bridge the ethnic divide by holding rallies in Tadjik strongholds like Parwan province.

Personal denigration of candidates has taken the form of photo shopped photographs appearing on social media. One of these is President Ashraf Ghani’s photo which shows him draping himself in an American flag. In reality, it is the photo of US President Donald Trump. A similar picture of presidential candidate Mohammad Hakim Torsan has also been posted on social media. Though this photo has not been tampered with, the caption reads: “Torsan says: I kiss Taliban’s feet.” Torsan told the Afghan media that he had never said any such thing and said “I believe in Allah, and will kiss the hands and feet of the people who serve their people and country.” Fake pages on the web have become a major problem but the Independent Election Complains Commission (IECC) and the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information and Technology (MoTIT) have said that controlling all social media pages is difficult. The have maintained that in case of a formal complaint the commission and the ministry would take necessary legal steps.

Election fraud remains a concern. Election officials have said that 60,000 election observers have received credentials for the presidential poll. The Election Oversight Network, a coalition of several election oversight institutes, has said that the two ruling electoral teams were using government resources. They also wanted a clarification whether peace or the elections were a priority.

Yousuf Rashid, head of Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan(FFEFA), had criticized the international community’s lack of interest in the Afghanistan presidential election and said that they were seriously concerned about the lack of transparency in the election process because the international community had not shown any interest in the ballot and was spending no money. He said that even if international observers were present, they would confine their presence to Kabul’s green area only and would only monitor areas where candidates were present. About financial support to election oversight institutes, he said these groups were not getting the same financial and technical support as in the past.

The Election Commission had received complaints against the manner in which some Presidential candidates were operating. In order to ensure transparent, fair and free elections, the country’s electoral bodies had signed a Memorandum of Understanding on joint coordination for the electoral process. Hawa Alam Nuristani, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) head, read out the agreement, saying the signatories were committed to interfering in each other’s legal affairs.

Another problem that needs tackling is the procedure of voting by women. The electoral authorities have decided to photograph all voters using facial recognition software as an anti-fraud measure, after elections in 2009 and 2014 ended in disputes over rampant ballot stuffing. Rural women are said to be enthusiastic about voting but eighteen women’s rights groups have separately written to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to call for the photo requirement to be scrapped. The letters state that women in rural areas wanted to vote but believed it was against Islam or culturally inappropriate to allow themselves to be photographed by men. Insistence on photographing voters could prevent hundreds of thousands of women from voting. The election commission says that women voters can have their pictures taken by female election staff but has had to acknowledges that at least 1,450 of the nearly 30,000 polling stations employ no women.

Nearly 70,000 security personnel are being deployed for the elections in which more than 9 million Afghans are expected to vote. With the Taliban in control of nearly half of the country’s 400 districts election officials have said that at least 2,000 of about 7,400 polling stations will not open on election day because they cannot be protected.

The Taliban meanwhile have been demonstrating their determination to thwart the elections freshly motivated by the Americans walking out of the peace talks. In addition to targeting President Ghani at his rally at Charikar, the Taliban undertook a suicide bombing of a national identity care distribution centre in Jalalabad; an attack on the capital of Baglan province; a massive attack in Kunduz where they overran some areas; a truck bomb explosion near Green Village- a large compound providing housing to foreign contractors and nongovernment organizations; heavy attacks in Takhar and Sar-e Pul in northern Afghanistan, as well as in Pul-Khumri; an offensive in Farah province; a car bomb attack on the police headquarters in Khas Uruzgan district; and a bombing in Paktia in which a district police chief was killed; a suicide bombing of hospital in Qalat when they were aiming to hit a training base for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security. There were casualties in double numbers in most of the attacks.

Though the talks with the Taliban were aborted reports seem to suggest some hope that they could resume. Meanwhile in the USA in a report to Congress last month, the Defense Department said that even if a settlement is reached, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and some Taliban hard-liners will constitute a “substantial threat” to Afghanistan and the United States, requiring a “robust” counterterrorism capability for the “foreseeable future.” Nine former U.S. ambassadors-including former Ambassadors to Kabul-writing for the Atlantic Council, had warned that Afghanistan could collapse in a “total civil war” if President Donald Trump were to withdraw all U.S. forces before the Kabul government and the Taliban conclude a peace settlement. They said that a new civil war “could prove catastrophic for U.S. national security” as it likely would see the Taliban maintain their alliance with al Qaeda and allow Islamic State’s growing local affiliate” to further expand. Maintaining a major U.S. troop presence would have “a critical influence on the chances for successful peace negotiations,” There was a debate afoot about increasing the CIA presence in Afghanistan to coincide with any withdrawal. Unnamed western officials were reported to have said that Islamic State, currently ensconced in Nangarhar and Kunduz would seek to benefit from any fissures in the Taliban after a peace deal with David Petraeus, a former top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan arguing that “the cost of retaining a few thousand troops in Afghanistan pales in comparison with the price the nation will pay, strategically and economically, if al-Qaeda or ISIS rebuilds a terrorist platform there.”

So what result will the elections throw up-if they actually take place in a reasonably successful manner? No candidate is likely to get sufficient votes to govern alone, though Ghani-- said to be riding an anti-American wave born of the attempts to deal with the Taliban and the people’s anger at the violence- is hoping he will be rid of Abdullah. There is concern that a fractured vote or a disputed outcome could fuel turmoil and strengthen the Taliban’s hand. But whatever the outcome one thing is clear—there will be no end to the violence until the Taliban achieve what they set out to do—re-establish the Islamic Emirate and make sure that all foreign troops leave the country. Given the comments and views from influential circles in the USA that a continuing American presence is a must---that could be a long time coming.