Even before January 1, the year 2014 in Afghanistan had long become a point of discussion in the Western media. For months, analysts, journalists and politicians spoke in ominous tones about what would befall the nation the year international troops were expected to withdraw.
The warnings had become so pervasive that Hamid Karzai accused the international press of making the year 2014 into a “film” meant to deter and debilitate the Afghan people.
But when 2014 finally came, it quickly became apparent that the dominant story of the year would be one of elections, not explosions.
By February, billboards of the candidates — technocrats who served in the 13-year administration of Hamid Karzai, former militia leaders, a former deputy in the nation’s second-largest armed opposition movement and a member of the royal family — were erected across the country.
The ensuing months saw the candidates take their campaigns to the airwaves as they debated everything from national security to foreign policy and the economy in a series of televised debates.
At the same time, each of the candidates crisscrossed the nation where they made alliances with local leaders and promised the people everything from one million new jobs to 24-hour electricity and cabinets comprised of 50 percent women and youth.
Though the April 5 polls would see a record seven million Afghans turn out to choose between the eight remaining candidates, some Afghans, especially among the youth, found themselves disenchanted by the lack of new, exciting candidates among a pool made entirely of old, familiar faces.
Within hours of the final ballots, it became increasingly clear that both Dr Abdullah Abdullah – the former foreign minister who had secured 45 percent of the vote – and Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai – ex-finance minister who trailed behind with just under 32 percent.
With no candidate reaching the 51 percent threshold, both Ghani and Abdullah were driven back into campaign mode as they prepared for a June 14 runoff.
Both quickly got to work as they secured endorsements among the ranks of their former rivals.
While Abdullah was supported by the biggest names – Zalmai Rassoul (11 percent), Ismail Khan (7 percent) and Gol Agha Sherzai (1.57 percent), Ghani was joined by the lower-tier of round one candidates – Qutbuddin Helal, Daoud Sultanzoy and Hedayat Amin Arsala – who garnered just 3.44 percent of the vote amongst themselves.
As Ghani made trips across several of the nation’s provinces where he received endorsements by regional heavyweights, Abdullah stayed largely in Kabul where he gained the support of former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh. The anti-corruption, anti-Pakistan, and anti-Taliban stances adopted by Saleh and his Green Trend movement has earned the ex-spy chief a considerable following among Afghanistan’s urban youth.
But in the midst of the campaigning, tragedy befell the nation as heavy rains and floods began to take a devastating toll in the north. Most notably, a landslide that devastated the community engulfed hundreds of homes in the Ab-e Bark village of Badakhshan province.
Both Abdullah and Ghani (as well as Hamid Karzai himself) visited the village, but the relief effort, which saw aid organizations from around the world gather around the small community, highlighted the lack of organization and frustration that often befalls a disaster site.
A month later, millions of Afghans once again took to the polls to vote in the June 14 second round.
But from the onset, it became increasingly evident that the second round would not go nearly as smoothly as the first round.
Even before polls closed, Zia-ul Haq Amarkhil, secretariat of the Independent Election Commission, was accused of illegally transporting ballots in Kabul. The Abdullah campaign would go on to release audio recordings of what they claimed were discussions between Amarkhil and other IEC officials planning to stuff ballots in favour of Ghani.
Though Amarkhil denied any wrongdoing, he went on to resign from his post. Subsequent tapes released by the Abdullah team alleged to show provincial governors and even Karim Khalili, second vice president to Karzai, plotting to commit fraud in favour of Ghani.
The accusations led to a two-week-long protest movement in Kabul where groups of hundreds of protesters tried to shut down the capital against what they said was the stealing of their votes.
Eventually, after supporters of Abdullah removed a poster of Karzai at Kabul’s Loya Jirga hall, in which Abdullah was expected to announce a parallel government, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, was called by an aggrieved Abdullah in order to sort out the election dispute.
On July 12, Kerry, with Ghani and Abdullah at his side, announced plans for an unprecedented 100 percent UN-assisted audit of the more than seven million votes said to be cast during the runoff.
From the start, the audit was plagued with delays and interruptions, as both sides could not agree to the terms for the disqualification of votes.
Eventually, after Abdullah withdrew himself from both the election and audit process, and a second visit by Kerry in August, the two candidates came to an agreement that would see Ghani become president and Abdullah serve in the newly created post of chief executive.
The September 21 signing came after nearly two months of negotiations about the role of the chief executive and the announcement of the highly contested second round election results. Within hours of the somber signing ceremony in the presidential palace, Yousuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission, simply named Ghani the winner and congratulated Abdullah as the chief executive officer, wishing the government “great success” at a brief press conference at IEC headquarters.
The nation’s long, drawn-out 10-month election process, which Ghani himself said cost Afghanistan six billion dollars in lost economic activity, came to a quiet, anti-climactic ending.
By the time Ghani and his two deputies – Abdur Rashid Dostum and Sarwar Danesh – took their oaths of office during the September 29 inauguration, the tensions with Abdullah had not cooled.
Abdullah and his team, who would join the national unity government established after the Kerry-led negotiations, demanded to be sworn in as part of the inauguration process and Abdullah was given a 10-minute speaking slot.
During his inaugural address to the nation, Ghani laid out his platform, saying he wanted to clean up the justice system, address corruption and create more opportunities for the nation’s women and youth.
As part of his address, Ghani acknowledged his wife Rula’s years-long dedication to the cause of street children and IDPs in Afghanistan. The statement, which took even the First Lady by surprise, was seen as a nod to the fact that Rula would become the first wife of an Afghan leader in nearly a century to take on a public role.
After inauguration, the Ghani administration took the Afghan people by surprise as they took swift, decisive actions.
Within 24 hours, Hanif Atmar, the newly named chief national security advisor to the president, signed both the Bilateral Security Agreement and the Status of Forces Agreement with Washington and NATO, respectively. Despite the November 2013 approval by a “consultative” Loya Jirga, Ghani’s predecessor Karzai refused to sign either agreement until Washington could guarantee it would do enough to curb civilian casualties.
Despite the people’s initial surprise at the new government’s bold initial steps, subsequent actions have been met with scepticism.
By the time the November 11 verdict in the re-opened $900 million Kabul Bank scandal had been delivered by a Kabul appellate court, many people began to question the wisdom of reopening the case. The verdict saw the accounts of Mahmoud Karzai, brother of Hamid, and Hassin Fahim, brother of former Karzai deputy Marhsal Fahim, frozen and the sentences of former bank Chairman Sherkhan Farnood, and former Chief Executive Khalilullah Ferozi increased to 15 years.
However, with more than two-dozen attacks in Kabul since inauguration day, many Afghans were suddenly found themselves once again worried about increasing insecurity.
The Kabul attacks, including an attempt on the life of female MP Shukria Barakzai and a Taliban-claimed bombing during a play in the Lycee Esteqlal, saw the capital once again become a focal point of the conflict.
Throughout the year, residents in the Helmand province in south and Kunduz in north, dealt with concentrated Taliban-led attacks. Another province, Kunar, continues to fend a Taliban offensive ongoing for nearly three weeks. But as the year drew to a close, the armed opposition’s attention was also turned to Kabul.
Though elections dominated much of the headlines in 2014, explosions were never too far away.
According to figures released by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, more than 9,600 Afghans were killed or injured as a result of the conflict this year. That number marks the highest civilian casualty rate since the UN began keeping tracking of civilian casualties.
In the final days of 2014 however, the public’s attention once again turned to the selection of government officials.
The national unity government’s inability to name a cabinet within the 45-day period stated by Ghani means the Afghan people may be ending the bloodiest year since the 2001 US invasion without a clear leadership structure to head what was billed as the nation’s first ever peaceful transition of power.