Why Afghanistan's September elections ought to be postponed
This summer, about 2,500 Afghan men and women will spend millions of dollars and hundreds of hours traveling some of the world's most dangerous roads campaigning for seats in the 249-member lower house of parliament. Along the way to the Sept. 18 elections, many -- most of them women -- will probably drop out. Several are likely to be violently attacked, possibly killed.
Almost every candidate will wonder whether the risk was worth it. If the massive fraud and unparalleled violence during last year's presidential and provincial council elections are any guide, the answer is no. Another failure by the international community to confront the electoral system's flaws will deliver a death blow to Afghanistan's fragile state institutions and substantially reduce the possibility of making any kind of progress.
The recent firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal should serve as a stark warning to those who would discount the destructive power of hubris in a time of crisis. Although the Obama administration has said that it will stick to the counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal launched last year, Washington urgently needs to assess whether Afghanistan can afford another blow to its stability. With parliamentary elections two months away and security at an all-time low, it is time to admit that the policy of political expediency that allowed President Hamid Karzai to steal his reelection last year is no longer workable.
In the absence of substantial electoral reform and greater transparency, postponing this year's parliamentary elections is the best strategy.
Security has deteriorated significantly since Afghan voters braved threats of violence to turn up at the polls last August. The government has ground to a halt amid a bitter feud between the president and the parliament. Despite the rampant ballot stuffing that led Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission to throw out more than 1 million fraudulent votes for Karzai last fall, few necessary reforms have been adopted. The voter registry is still fatally flawed. Many of the officials who abetted the fraud remain in place. The international community has surrendered its veto power on the complaints commission, leaving it to officials handpicked by Karzai to influence the final outcome of the vote.
Most disturbing, vetting processes designed to keep known criminals off the ballot have broken down under pressure from Afghan power brokers. Complaints were initially raised, at the behest of high-ranking Afghans, about more than 300 candidate-nominees suspected of leading or participating in illegal armed groups, but the final list of those to be excluded because of links to violent, armed groups was initially pared to 13 by the government's vetting commission in a process the Electoral Complaints Commission has called "dubious." Ultimately, after a prolonged game of political ping-pong between Afghanistan's electoral bodies, only 31 candidates were excluded on the basis of their links to armed groups, leaving many warlords on the ballot. Without vocal international intervention and decisive action, this kind of interference from on high in the presidential palace is likely to continue. And that means violence will continue to escalate. It also ensures that only candidates prepared to bully or bribe will win.
The international community seems to have resigned itself to failure. When Karzai issued a decree in the spring stripping the Electoral Complaints Commission of most of its powers and giving himself authority to appoint all its members, the public outcry from diplomats in Kabul was minimal. Fortunately, Afghanistan's parliament balked at this move. But the willingness of other countries to accept a repetition of last year's fraud and mistakes has resulted in an eerie sense of déjà vu.
If the Electoral Complaints Commission fails to publicly articulate its plan for confronting fraud and adjudicating complaints about the polls, it's quite possible that the September voting will result in nothing short of disaster. Similarly, if the United States and its coalition partners are unable to push back against the Afghan government's unrealistic insistence that Afghan security forces are prepared to secure some 6,800 polling centers, a significant spike in violence is assured on Election Day and afterward. Although the estimated cost of the September elections, $120 million, is only about half the price of last August's voting, the impact of another failed election will have much greater political costs for the overall counterinsurgency strategy.
Many Afghans have grown deeply skeptical of democratic processes. Polling and our own research have found that most agree, however, that having some choice in how they are governed and who governs them is better than having no choice at all. They also recognize that members of parliament are more vital to preserving their day-to-day interests than the president or politically toothless provincial councils. If the international community is not prepared to ensure the elections aren't rigged, then the voting scheduled for September should be postponed until reforms can be established. Otherwise, the whole process risks delivering another easy win for Afghanistan's insurgents.
The writer is senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan.