The central event for the region has been the impending drawdown of occupation forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year. That has made the Afghan presidential election doubly important. Not only will the new President not have the US occupation to contend with, but he will not be Hamid Karzai, the face of the occupation, who had held office ever since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. He is now ineligible under the two-term limit placed by the Constitution he helped introduce. Since President Karzai has left it to the President elected on March 6 to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US, which will allow it to keep some troops in Afghanistan, he has created an interest in the US during the election. This new President is going to have to survive the Taliban as they make every effort to overthrow the regime.

It would appear that the election will throw up a Najibullah type figure. Najib was the strongman the USSR left in Kabul when it exited Afghanistan in 1989. Najib ended up being strung from a lamp-post in his capital when the Mujahideen took over. However, the US wants the winner to last a little longer. President Karzai, whatever his intentions, has not overseen the development of an American-style democracy in the country which has meant that the US has to seek a new person themselves to serve its interests.

Perhaps the most glaring lack is that there is no party system. Karzai is accused of having won re-election in 2009 only because of massive rigging. Perhaps his best defence against that charge is that rigging requires a machine, which he appears not to have passed on to anyone. It must not be forgotten that if such a machine existed, someone would have lain claim to it, most likely his half-brother, Qayyum Karzai. After Qayyum’s recent withdrawal, that machine should have gone to another candidate. It did not.

A little like Pakistan, Afghanistan too has tried to develop substitutes for political parties. For example, it has come up with ethnicities as a basis for political identification. This will not translate too well, because while Pakistan has a parliamentary system inherited from the British, Afghanistan has an American-style presidential election. The big difference is that the Pakistani chief executive comes to office through a National Assembly elected by 199 different constituencies, each with its own biradri break-up, while the Afghan chief executive is elected in a nation-wide election, by what is in effect a single constituency with a varied biradri break-up. That has led to the ‘ethnic balancing’ of panels, just as US tickets attempt some sort of regional balance between the presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

While Pakistan has managed to come up with a left-right divide, with the PML(N) occupying the right of the spectrum and the PPP the left, Afghanistan has not developed an equivalent. One reason may be that the military has not been involved in making parties. In Pakistan, the PML(N) owes an immense debt to Gen Zia-ul- Haq. In India, the BJP has not just been joined by senior retired officers, it shares a culture of Hindu chauvinism with the military. In Bangladesh, Begum Zia is carrying the mantle of her husband, the late Maj Gen Zia ur Rehman, while she has been in alliance with former military ruler Lt Gen (retd) H.M. Ershad. Afghanistan’s military on the other hand, has been dominated by Tajiks, whose political vehicle has been the Northern Alliance, leaving Pakhtuns with no place but the Taliban and the politics of armed resistance. It is worth noting that the incoming President’s biggest military threat is from an armed Pakhtun-led insurgency. It is also worth noting that the Afghan right is against the elections.

The inclination of the military to favour one party over another is particularly worth noting within the Afghan context, where the US is one of the occupiers and has a military which is strongly inclined to the Republican Party. In this respect, the US’s natural interlocutors are militants. It also brings to the fore another problem of ethnic politics: it does not allow any focus on ideological issues. It does not matter if the candidate is a radical and the voter a dyed-in-wool conservative; if both are Tajiks ( or Jats, in Pakistan or India), then the former must vote for the latter. Because parties are to some extent ideological, this has led (in Pakistan) to the somewhat unedifying sight of a politician crossing the floor, deserting the party he belongs to, and joining its opposite, because he has not been elected by his biradri to sit in opposition. This means that being in the opposition is almost as bad as losing an election.

Whatever becomes of US troops, one of the great realities that the new President will have to deal with is Pakistan. This will lead him back to the Afghan jihad, because it shaped the histories of both countries, and has meant that opponents of the current invasion have found refuge in Pakistan. It does not help the incoming President that the regime opponents in Pakistan are not taking part in current elections, and are doing what they can to disrupt them. That means they are not going to make the task of his governing any easier, and that they still remain competitors for power, fighting for his removal and the return of ousted Taliban chief Mullah Omar.

The fact that the Taliban are not taking part means that the winner is not going to be sympathetic to Pakistan. He will look to the US and India for help for remaining in power. The chances are that Pakistan will watch on as the encirclement continues, and India carries on misusing its consulates in Afghanistan against Pakistan, as is happening now.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.