Does the Afghan Presidential Election Matter?

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Summary
The upcoming election in Afghanistan marks neither the end of a long post-Taliban transition nor a crucial turning point for the troubled country.
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With Afghanistan’s third presidential election mere days away, one thing seems obvious: it is an extremely significant event. The vote represents a crucial turning point for the troubled country, marking the end of the long post-Taliban transition and the dozen-year rule of Hamid Karzai.

Right?

While dodging such aspirational vocabulary as “free” or “fair,” Western observers emphasize the importance of a credible process—but privately concede it will be no such thing.

Behind that bit of doublespeak lurks a broader delusion. The April 5 election may not prove to be such a watershed after all. The exercise, guaranteed to be doctored, may end up startling Afghans and observers alike not by the change it delivers, but rather by the continuity. After the vote, the holders of effective power, and their governing styles, may look quite familiar. Meanwhile, the notion of democracy will be further discredited in the minds of Afghans, connected as it is with electoral formalities that paper over glaring abuses.

As for Afghanistan’s destiny, what happens in the year or two following the contest will be more important than the vote itself. Especially significant is whether an equitable consensus-building process, consonant with indigenous democratic practices, can loosen the knotted scars of a dozen years of ignored dysfunction. If international officials still care at all about Afghanistan’s ongoing stability, they should put energy and political capital into helping midwife such a process.

For now, most of them remain fixated on the upcoming vote. “The importance of this political transition cannot be overstated,” opined Caroline Wadhams of the Center for American Progress earlier this month, echoing the publicly stated views of most U.S. Afghanistan-watchers. For, “a failed electoral process, in which the outcome is seriously disputed, has the potential to trigger violence and to undermine the cohesion of Afghan security forces.”1

At a recent panel discussion on the topic, Ambassador James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, cited poll results (as is his wont, despite the methodological weaknesses of the surveys) to describe Afghans as “confident” and “hopeful about the elections.”

Even the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), whose seasoned experts live in Kabul and display a clear-eyed view of developments, has occasionally been swept up in the energy of campaign events, treating rallies or gatherings of tribal elders as meaningful at face value.

One notable “event,” for example, was the withdrawal from the race, in early March, of Karzai’s older brother Qayum. He said he was building a coalition with Karzai family favorite Zalmai Rassoul, who would remain in the race. A few days earlier, the AAN reported with interest, a delegation of tribal elders had met in Kabul to urge ethnic Pashtun candidates to consolidate, so as to avoid splitting the vote.

Though “dressed up in abstract nouns masquerading as ‘shared’ policy objectives,” writes the AAN, Qayum’s announcement “was clearly actually about increasing the chances of getting a Karzai loyalist as the next president.”

In fact, everyone with any significant personal experience of Qayum Karzai, including me, was sure from the moment he announced his presidential bid that the whole gambit was a ruse, an effort to project competition before whisking it away on behalf of the Karzai family’s designated proxy. Qayum, who wields his considerable power in the shadows, was never running for president.

Such sleight of hand, and less subtle examples, is the real stuff of this election, not campaign meetings or opinion polls or even the ballots individual Afghans will mark. And the Karzais’ consolidation around the pliable figure of Rassoul suggests they intend to keep their hands on the levers of power even after the vote.

Western observers are concerned about the Taliban’s chances of disrupting the exercise. On March 25, a blast ripped through election commission offices in downtown Kabul. Election monitors from the National Democratic Institute and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe withdrew from Afghanistan altogether, after an earlier attack inside the city’s swankest and best-guarded hotel.

Michael Semple, a self-designated interpreter of Taliban perspectives, judges that field commanders have been instructed to disrupt electoral activities, and will try, but probably lack the capability to mount enough violence to derail the process. His analysis echoes that of his colleagues, Antonio Giustozzi and Casey Garret Johnson, who describe a somewhat increased Taliban capacity for mischief-making, but a likelihood that “rank-and-file fighters . . . may strike local deals with political entities to look the other way and allow voting to take place.”

No similar studies have appeared regarding the Karzai machine’s plans or capacity to disrupt (or distort) the vote. In fact, fraud—the distinguishing feature of the last presidential election in 2009—receives only glancing references in most Western discussion. The resulting analyses are crippled by internal contradictions.

Side-by-side with recognition that violations of electoral laws are likely, for example, Afghans’ sole responsibility, this time, for organizing and regulating this year’s election is illogically cast as a positive development. In fact, “Afghanization” has allowed Hamid Karzai to squeeze all independent voices out of the key electoral agencies, ensuring they will answer to him, and to make brazen use of the instruments of state power to bolster the chances of his preferred candidate, Rassoul.

Another example of the internal contradictions in Western analysis is concern over potential disenfranchisement of Pashtun voters, who live disproportionately in the dangerous south and east of the country. “Many Afghans . . . argue that a technically sound process, while essential, will be insufficient in creating a legitimate outcome,” notes CAP’s Wadhams, “because a technically sound process can still result in effective Pashtun disenfranchisement, especially in the south and east.” The Afghan government has redoubled efforts to ensure that the absolute minimum number of polling places are closed for security reasons.

But such disenfranchisement—hypocritically decried in 2009 by Karzai loyalists—is exactly what allowed for the massive forging of ballots in the last presidential election. Then, as now, Afghan government officials insisted that measures be taken to open polling places in manifestly insecure areas. Amrullah Saleh, then the head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, told a meeting of UN, U.S., and international military officials that he had been dispatched to negotiate more than 300 deals with Taliban commanders around the country. The terms included payment, prisoner exchange, and de facto safe haven.

What they did not include was “allow[ing] voting to take place”—to quote Giustozzi and Johnson’s phrase. Saleh was explicit that the agreements only covered safe conduct for convoys carrying ballot materials into and out of the district—not permission for residents actually to make use of them. Almost no one did.

For, the Taliban’s ability to affect the election should not be assessed by the number of violent attacks that occur. More important is the militants’ ability to dissuade people from leaving their homes on election day—without having to fire a shot. “Night letters” left in prominent public places, announcements from village mosques, even word of mouth, reinforced by just a few signal attacks, are sufficient to intimidate a traumatized population.

In and around Kandahar, Karzai’s hometown, where I accompanied friends to cast their ballots in 2009 and heard many eyewitness accounts, few outside city limits voted. Even in town, voters rushed to remove all traces of violet ink from their fingers—not so they could fraudulently cast another ballot, but in case they stumbled onto a Taliban checkpoint. Physical violence, meanwhile, was limited, taking place only in peripheral neighborhoods whose control was contested.

The result? Dozens of empty ballot boxes from districts that were overwhelmingly Pashtun—and thus presumed to be pro-Karzai. Those were the boxes that were stuffed in succeeding days, along with others in places like Nuristan Province in the far northeast, where more Karzai votes were recorded than registered voters. After a tortured auditing process, nearly one-third of Karzai votes were determined to be illegal.

Those deals with the Taliban, in other words, were not “local.” They were part of a sophisticated campaign to steal the election. And indeed, Afghanistan’s chaotic appearance can be deceptive. It masks a significant degree of structure and vertical integration within Karzai’s ruling network.

When candidate Gul Agha Sherzai, a Kandahar native, went to Kandahar to campaign last month, the local police provided no protection or other support, according to complaints he made publicly afterward. The police chief of neighboring Helmand Province, Mohammad Hakim Angar, offered all candidates, including Sherzai, the same solid escort. After Sherzai’s complaints about the discrepancy, it was Angar who was removed, not the offending Kandahar police chief. By contrast, Karzai’s pick, the locally unknown Rassoul, visited Kandahar with fanfare, accompanied by an impressive convoy of dark green Ford Ranger police trucks. According to locals, residents from the chief of police’s native district were bussed to Rassoul’s huge rally at the government’s expense. Just as in 2009, the machinery of the state is being flagrantly placed at the service of the Karzais’ favored candidate.

One of Rassoul’s campaign slogans is continuity. And indeed, the result of the upcoming election is likely to be more of the same. In particular—and most surprisingly to many—it may well deliver ongoing de facto rule by Karzai, acting in some indirect role. The political order that emerges will be as fragile and contested as ever. The vote will have further eroded the credibility of democratic principles, as corrupt practices that have been perpetrated with impunity in the past are emulated by most candidates.

And, by enshrining men accused of bloodcurdling war crimes as candidates, such as Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf or Mohammad Mohaqiq, it has already marked the end of hopes for transitional justice or public accountability for grave wrongdoing in prior decades. Yet, such reckoning—at least as much as the technicalities of voting—was what many Afghans presumed and hoped the international intervention would provide in 2001.

It would be misguided, in other words, to see this election as marking either a transition for Afghanistan or a factor of stability.

What might help Afghanistan achieve both would be a patient, stubbornly mediated process of dialogue among the country’s various stakeholders—something along the lines of the National Dialogue in Tunisia, which delivered that country’s remarkable January 2014 constitution. The Taliban should be part of such a process, as should members of the formal government. But given the dubious legitimacy of both groups, they should not be seen as the only relevant actors in a negotiation.

Only a broad-based consensus-building process—forcefully mediated by actors or institutions with clout and historical legitimacy—holds out hope of political reform down the line. It could even, perhaps, pave the way for public accountability and restitution for some of the gruesome acts the Afghan people have suffered over the past thirty years.

Notes

1 See also Michael Semple’s statement that “stability following the withdrawal of international troops depends as much on a legitimately-elected and effective presidential successor to President Hamid Karzai as it does on battlefield outcomes.” Michael Semple, “The Taliban’s View of the 2014 Elections, USIP Peacebrief 165 (January 30, 2014), http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/PB165-The_Talibans_View_of_the_2014_Elections.pdf.

End of document

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