National Security Network

Going into Afghan Elections, Mounting Debate at Home

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Report 17 September 2010

Afghanistan Afghanistan Afganistan elections Afghanistan military


Tomorrow, more than 10 million Afghans will participate in the elections for the lower house of Parliament, the Wolesi Jirga - the first Afghan national election since the flawed and controversial presidential election last year.  As in the past, experts and military commanders expect to see a "surge in violence" to coincide with the vote, often with symbols of the elections as the specific targets. 

Afghan authorities have made some real and meaningful electoral reforms over the past year that have resulted in positive improvements on the ground.  But serious obstacles remain, including voter disenfranchisement, a lack of political parties, fraud and disillusionment.  Against this  backdrop, a robust debate is taking place in Washington and across America on the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and our strategy in the region. 

This weekend, Afghanistan heads to the polls for the first time since flawed elections of 2009.  This Saturday, roughly 10.5 million Afghans will vote for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghanistan's Parliament. The Afghanistan Analysts Network notes that this year, 2,502 candidates will stand for election, competing for the 249 seats in the lower house. As AFP highlights, the election is "the second poll of its kind since the Taliban were ousted in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and only the second in 40 years."

The elections coincide with a period of rising insecurity in Afghanistan. Over 500 coalition forces have been killed so far this year, compared to 521 fatalities in 2009. "Last month a United Nations report said the number of civilians killed in the war rose by 31 percent in the first half of 2010, with 1,271 civilians killed in conflict-related incidents," according to Reuters. The possibility of further violence looms large over this weekend's elections. The Guardian reported yesterday that the commanders in Afghanistan expect a "surge in violence" by insurgents hoping to disrupt the elections. "We have already seen a pattern of intimidation...There will be a good deal of violence because the insurgency will want to prevent people from voting," said Major General Nick Carter, the British commander in Kandahar. The Associated Press reported that in "in the eastern province of Khost, Taliban leaflets were posted on mosques warning against voting." "Any election workers or voters will be considered abandoned by our holy warriors and if they go to polling stations they will be targeted...Vehicles and polling stations will be attacked by bombs and other means," read one leaflet mentioned in the article. Special Representative to the United Nations Staffan de Mistura, summed up his expectations for this Saturday's polling: "These elections, we can say already in advance, are not going to be perfect... but based on the preparations by Afghan authorities, we are feeling that they are going to be much better than the previous ones."

"Yet there are signs of progress. When you look at the photos of candidates available at this USAID website, all of whom have ‘electoral signs' for the illiterate to vote by, you cannot help but be moved by their bravery, their ordinariness, the hope in their eyes. The famously violent Helmand Province will have 22 more precincts open than last year. Hundreds of female candidates are running for office. In the cities and the rural provinces, candidates are openly campaigning with cell-phone messages, posters and paid media," writes Michael Signer, a foreign policy analyst who is serving as an election observer in Afghanistan. [AAN, 9/13/10. AFP, 9/16/10. The Guardian, 9/15/10. AP, 9/16/10. Staffan De Mistura, 9/15/10. Michael Signer, 9/9/10]

Despite meaningful electoral reforms, daunting obstacles face Saturday's election. USIP Afghanistan expert Scott Worden - who was a commissioner for the Afghanistan Electoral Complaints Commission for the Presidential and Provincial Council for the infamous 2009 presidential elections - outlines some positive electoral reforms.  He notes that the new chair and chief electoral officer of the Independent Electoral Commission are professionals, and that many of the corrupt officials responsible for last year's election have been fired. Yet, as Worden and others have noted, there remain serious obstacles facing Saturday's polling.

Disenfranchisement: One thousand polling centers have been closed due to fears of violence and ballot fraud. As the Washington Post notes, "among the estimated 1.5 million Afghans who have been effectively disenfranchised, it may have a very different effect."  "Residents and candidates in these places, mostly remote villages in dangerous southern and eastern provinces, said they worry that the move will deepen ethnic rivalries by creating electoral imbalances and accelerate a growing disengagement from the Afghan central government that has fed the Taliban's resurgence," according to the Post. [Washington Post, 9/16/10]

Lack of political parties: Co-Director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network Thomas Ruttig observed in a recent piece that, "A questionable law, technical problems in implementing it, an astonishing lack of awareness about legal developments on the part of some parties and, it seems, the lack of courage on the part of others to run under their party name has led to a situation in which only five political parties are fielding candidates in the 18 September poll." Ruttig summed up the need for reform to allow the emergence of more political parties, calling them "a vital element in any democratic system - and should be also in Afghanistan if it wants to be a democratic country." [Thomas Ruttig, 9/13/10]

Fraud: Worden fears systemic corruption and political impunity will "make it unlikely that many polling workers will be able to resist pressure to look the other way when fraud is being committed in contentious local races by commanders and political elites."  Worden concluded: "The 2010 parliamentary elections will be marred by significant irregularities. The international community should not try to disguise this fact. Instead it should work to ensure that the worst fraud is identified, investigated, and resolved in a way that does not turn key political factions against the government." [Scott Worden, 9/7/10]

Voter disillusionment: Martine van Bijlert, also co-Director of the Afghanistan Analysts network, wrote that despite the recent electoral reforms, many Afghans are still deeply skeptical about the political process, which is still seen as rife with fraud. According to van Bijlert, many Afghans are "now obsessed with the fake voter cards from Pakistan, but who also have detailed stories of schemes and deals and money payments - in the last election, as well as the current one," and "it would be foolish to forget, yet again, that procedures and measures only work if they are implemented." [Martine van Bijlert, 9/16/10]

Election takes places against anxious domestic backdrop, which finds mounting public debate over the war effort.  With polls showing a public increasingly anxious with the war, a robust debate is taking place within Washington.  Representative Jane Harman and defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon recently called for greater clarity on the exit date from Afghanistan: "We believe it is essential that President Barack Obama give this country and the world a clearer sense of how long it will take to draw down American troops in Afghanistan," stating "we believe ambiguity is becoming counterproductive." Caroline Wadhams, an analyst at the Center for American Progress reminds us that endless war is not a realistic option.  She writes, "Clearly there are no perfect solutions for Afghanistan. The timeline provides a reminder that we will not stay in Afghanistan indefinitely and that we should assist the Afghanistan government in creating something that will survive our withdrawal." 

Commentary around the recent Afghanistan Study Group Report, lead by Matthew Hoh, Steve Clemons and William Goodfellow, has sparked a debate about Afghanistan's significance in regard to U.S. strategic interests - as well as about the methodology and analysis of the report itself.  Steve Walt, the academic dean at Harvard's Kennedy School, who participated in the group, writes that, "The war in Afghanistan has become a fool's errand that is neither essential to U.S. national security nor likely to produce a satisfactory outcome. It is also an increasingly expensive undertaking, and a major distraction for U.S. leaders at a time when there is no shortage of problems to address. The current strategy is unlikely to work, and the United States and its allies will eventually have to come up with an alternative approach. Our report was intended to accelerate the strategic reassessment that we believe is inevitable, and I hope that interested citizens will read it, along with the views of our critics."  [Jane Harman and Michael O'Hanlon, 8/25/10.  Caroline Wadhams, 9/8/10. Stephen Walt, 9/14/10]

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