Deifying Death: Political Assassinations and the Case of Ashraf Ghani

On 17 September, at a re-election campaign rally in Charikar, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani narrowly survived an IED assassination attempt that left 26 bystanders dead. Although historically, surviving an assassination attempt can generally boost the popularity of the targeted politician, this may not be the case for Ghani. In this briefing, John Scott examines why.

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In 1984, after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher survived an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army in Brighton, the ‘Iron Lady’s popularity surged by ten polling points. In the US three years earlier, when US President Ronald Reagan survived a point-blank shooting after a speaking event in Washington DC, his popularity – and, according to him later, his faith in God – also surged. In Brazil in 2018, the then presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro survived a stabbing on the campaign trail in Juiz de Fora, and went on to secure the premiership following a provincial polling surge. Drawing a causal link between his survival and his electoral victory would perhaps be too great a step; however, the incident demonstrably fuelled his self-cultivated image as Brazil’s next strongman, one that resonated particularly well in an election characterised by fears around insecurity and violence.

As these instances demonstrate, assassination attempts can rebound spectacularly on their perpetrators, often unintentionally fuelling a leader’s popularity in a way that few advertising campaigns could. Across the globe from Brazil, meanwhile, as a fraught and unstable campaign season crawls to an end in Afghanistan ahead of this weekend’s presidential election, the incumbent premier Ashraf Ghani – himself no stranger to assassination attempts – has crawled uninjured from the wreckage of another suicide bomb attack. The incident took place on 17 September near a campaign rally in Charikar, around 50km north of Kabul, where the President was campaigning for his own re-election. Twenty-six bystanders were less lucky.

Charikar is located in Parwan province; a diverse part of the country and one with large Pashtun and Tajik communities. The Taliban – a Pashtun-majority movement that rejects all elections in Afghanistan and indeed holds a particular hatred for President Ghani – claimed responsibility for the attack soon after it made headlines, despite failing to kill the intended target. The ethnic dynamics of Parwan and Afghanistan more broadly are of great relevance to the security environment, particularly in the days ahead of such a controversial election. Indeed, they also offer some insight into why this failed assassination – in contrast to those in Brighton, Washington, and Juiz de Fora – will far from galvanise its onlookers.

Ghani, the most prominent Pashtun candidate out of the seventeen presidential hopefuls, has frequently promised during his campaign that his re-election would be a vital step towards pacifying the insurgency, which has embroiled every administration since the US toppled the Taliban’s ruling Islamic Emirate in December 2001. In the eyes of many citizens and community leaders, however, the president has continually failed to assure their security despite massive international support, and indeed has no basis on which to promise a peace process with the Taliban. The group categorically rejects the legitimacy of his government, and will likely refuse to begin any form of ceasefire negotiations with him (or indeed his successor) until it receives its own promises in turn from the United States.

Such an impasse has created an opportunity for the Taliban to further disrupt the Kabul government’s democratic continuity and foment the discord that undermines his credibility. This in part explains the assassination attempt in Charikar, which perhaps narrowly avoided a third months-long delay to the electoral process and a severe deterioration of political stability.

Ethnic Tajiks comprise a significant population of Parwan, and indeed have historically formed the main body of the Northern Alliance that has battled the Taliban ever since the Soviet Army withdrew more than twenty years ago. In fact, President Ghani’s main rival in tomorrow’s election, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, is half-Tajik, and this ethnic difference will likely characterise many voting Afghans’ decision of who to back. When the Taliban targeted President Ghani’s campaign event, therefore, they will have intended to aggravate Tajik-Pashtun tensions and fuel inter-ethnic revenge attacks for months to come – something they may well achieve.

News of Ghani’s survival will no doubt have been received with relief by those who already support him, but it will hardly have generated further popularity among those who either dislike him or even reject his government completely. His claim to any populist strongman image is perceived as unfounded, and his chances of achieving military security are rapidly dwindling. On the contrary, the attack, regardless of its outcome, provides an insight into the Taliban’s plans in the immediate future, particularly while negotiations with the US have (likely temporarily) collapsed. Despite inroads by rival groups such as Islamic State, the group remains fully capable of regular and deadly attacks in Kabul and beyond. For many innocent Afghans who are caught up in the crossfire and exhausted by decades of violence, this is only the latest of an interminable string of attacks that shows little sign of slowing.

For many national or religious leaders, surviving an assassination attempt can prove the ultimate show of resolve and reliability. But for Ashraf Ghani, who holds one of the most dangerous executive positions on Earth, it may merely come as a footnote to a long, destructive, and unfinished chapter in Afghanistan’s story.

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John Scott is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. John has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic and organised crime analysis for Intelligence Fusion, and now works in political risk for a leading intelligence firm in London.

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Photo credit: DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

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