September 17, 2010
Afghan Election Déjà vu
There weren’t supposed to be any excuses this time. With Afghanistan’s parliamentary election already delayed from May to September and President Barack Obama’s additional 30,000 troops in place, the outcome of Saturday’s vote may provide the clearest direction of US strategy. Despite all the talk of Zhari’s military assault and a Special Forces rampage, the progress that both Afghanistan and America need to survive is political in nature.
US and Afghan officials have dug into their propaganda front, highlighting military successes to assure the Afghan people of a secure vote. Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa claimed that NATO and Afghan operations have weakened the Taliban's capacity, saying, "They've got nothing. They just have propaganda and threats, so people should not be afraid. They should come out for the coming elections and they should vote their choice for their own candidate."
Yet while optimism circulates the Pentagon, fear and doubt continue to reign in Afghanistan. A few success stories do exist, just not enough to instill a real sense of confidence in the vote. Even David Ignatius is losing hope. Most sources outside official US and Afghan channels are predicting a repeat of 2009’s presidential election, when President Hamid Karzai escaped allegations of fraud after challenger Abdullah Abdullah dropped out of a potential runoff.
Although one election has already defied the Obama administration’s expectations, it would be inexcusable not to prepare for the worst-case scenario - another August. Demonstrating progress to Afghans could become impossible if the conduct of elections doesn’t improve, and new fallout would haunt Obama as he prepares for his war review in December - as Karzai's actions did during his last review.
Washington must hope for the best while planning for a cataclysmic event that only begins with the Taliban.
The exact strategy chosen by the Taliban is difficult to predict. Last year’s election experienced the worst violence of any vote since the war began in 2001, depressing turnout in the south and eastern provinces and creating ideal conditions for fraud. Having issued similar threats this year the possibility cannot be discounted, however Governor Wesa’s statements in regards to Taliban propaganda may contain some truth. Having already sowed fear in the vote, the Taliban may let their threats do the talking to avoid unnecessary criticism.
The Taliban should be aware of Karzai’s growing disapproval and might allow him to hang himself.
Whether the Taliban subtly or overtly interfere with Afghanistan’s election, both options could trigger a chain reaction that would imperil US strategy, provided that turnout is once again suppressed. The Taliban would then deal its main damage through a low turnout, as fewer witnesses enable ballot stuffing and fraudulent voting counts. And while Afghan politicians from all factions are liable to take advantage of a potential vacuum, those connected to Karzai are destined for the spotlight. The Taliban’s patience could prove particularly deadly.
One of Karzai and America’s main weaknesses going into Saturday is their short rope from the last election, when America sheltered Karzai from fraud accusations and ultimately reinstalled him over Abdullah. The initial news that 15% of polling stations would be closing, mostly in the south and east, immediately dampened expectations of Saturday’s election. Afghanistan is also more violent in general compared to 2009, according to the UN and Afghanistan's NGO Safety Office (ANSO), furthering the negative image of US security efforts. That Obama deployed too few troops in relation to his general’s recommendation (40,000-60,000) has become glaringly obvious.
“It’s worse now that at any point since we’ve been keeping records,” said ANSO director Nic Lee. “And it’s not just in areas where ISAF is pushing into.”
Keeping with Lee’s theme, allegations have surfaced that more than southern and eastern polling stations are shutting down. Hazara leader Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, chairman of the People's Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, claims that the government is also closing polling stations in his relatively peaceful territory. His opposition to Karzai's reconciliation with the Taliban soured their relationship. Now, with 30 candidates running for parliamentary seats, Mohaqiq believes that Karzai is squeezing the Hazara, Afghanistan's third-largest ethnic group, out of the election - and thus out of the future.
Mohaqiq isn’t going quietly though. Addressing a Hazara crowd near Kabul, Mohaqiq emphatically declared, "We were the ones who helped Karzai win the election, and we are the ones who can topple him. I am here to defend your rights, trampled for decades." And given the treatment of a major political figure, the chances of repetition across Afghanistan run high.
But if one element were to tip the election from unstable to catastrophic, a void in independent oversight could multiply Afghanistan’s obstacles beyond critical mass. Karzai and his officials worked tirelessly between elections to limit foreign influence on the ground and in Afghanistan’s electoral system. The result, according to The Guardian: “main international monitoring groups have drastically reduced their efforts.”
Abdullah is right that Afghanistan has no choice except to go ahead with the vote - canceling is out of the question. But he’s clearly anticipating a disorganized election largely because of this problem, and he speaks from experience.
"There [has been] no political will among the Afghan administration led by Mr. Karzai," Abdullah told Al Jazeera. "And, the international community as whole was not ready to go ahead with massive reform in the electoral system. They thought that as long that there is an election, perhaps we can live with lower standards for Afghanistan, which was not right."
One number seems particularly ominous. Last week Singapore-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) halved its observers, while the EU drop from 120 to seven. The Free and Fair Election Foundation Afghanistan (FEFA) will assume lead command in monitoring the election, but its 7,000 Afghan workers face a daunting challenge. FEFA chairman Nader Nadery claims that 2010’s election campaign is the most violent to date and expects to cover only 65% of the country's 5,897 polling stations.
So 15% are already closed and 35% of those remaining open may be subject to tampering - just to start. Whether Afghans expect a “free and fair” vote is hotly debated, but the reality is that misrepresentation of the people creates disorder in the government.
The signs add up to another vote plagued by fraud. The powder keg is stuffed with reports of Karzai's interference with anti-corruption probes and the Obama administration rethinking its anti-corruption strategy. Confidence is low and, unlike Marjah or Kandahar, low expectations become dangerous in an election. Discrepancies involving Karzai could be blown out of proportion and Taliban propaganda rendered more believable. The fuse salivates for a spark.
US and Afghan officials are still promising a relatively secure vote though, and delivering may be their biggest challenge of the year.
Naturally this situation is extremely dangerous for all parties involved. In the event of a fraudulent election, Washington must act quicker and more decisively than last year’s election, which the White House dragged out to exhaust Abdullah's resources. Candidates like Mohaqiq must be guaranteed political freedom to operate. The prime challenge to US strategy, on top of a corrupt election in general, is the possibility of Karzai’s power weakening at the district level. Afghans don’t see the same progress that US officials do, holding a higher opinion of the Taliban’s resilience than Washington. The White House and Pentagon must be prepared for extensive fallout after one of the largest anti-Karzai, anti-American rallies in years.
A recent survey by the University of Kabul found that 91% of respondents were dissatisfied with Karzai's performance.
Unappealing as the prospect is to Washington, the will of Afghans must be preserved in the case that Karzai’s power base begins to crumble. The West is already viewed as his bodyguard, despite their quarrels, and his replacement is an option that must be seriously prepared for. Karzai is losing popularity and any favoritism will rapidly undo America’s fate in Afghanistan. He may be the best man for the West, but that doesn’t matter if Afghans disagree.
An impartial observation of the parliamentary election is the only means of justifying the continuation of US strategy. Conversely, a repeat of last year may prove the final dagger.