Afghanistan is set to hold its presidential election on April 5. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a media call with Sarah Chayes, Frederic Grare, and Pashtoon Atif  to discuss the election.

Listen to the call.

TOM CARVER: Good morning, everyone.  This is media call on the Afghanistan elections.  My name is Tom Carver.  I’m vice president here at Carnegie.  And I have with me in the room Sarah Chayes from South Asia program, who has spent many years in Afghanistan and is familiar to you all, and Frederic Grare, who’s the director of the program.  And also I’m pleased to say we have Pashtoon Atif, who is working with Sarah who is in Kabul at the moment, and works for an international NGO there and has had seven year working on the ground in the humanitarian field.  

This call is on the record.  It’ll last for 30 minutes, and obviously the aim is to give you guys a chance to talk to Sarah and Pashtoon and Frederic and get your questions across.  But maybe we just start with a kind of opening couple of comments from everyone about how significant these elections are, because a lot is being made about the importance of them, the fact that they're potentially the first time that democratic power will be transferred democratically.  Sarah, do you think they are significant?

SARAH CHAYES: Well, I think Afghan elections tend to surprise in surprising ways, and it’s usually because Western observers, and in particular policymakers, set great store by them, and it’s a kind of great way to hope that somehow the election is going to magically transform the landscape.  I don't think this one will.  I think the real surprise is going to be continuity in the real holders of power.

TOM CARVER: Frederic?

SARAH CHAYES: Well, I think – it’s like you put it – and I entirely agree with what Sarah said.  I mean the only positive outcome that is to be expected from this election is the continuation of the state as such and for us maintain the level of viability that it has had so far.  That is a real stake, and this is where all the questions –

[Side conversation]

TOM CARVER: Please continue, Frederic.

SARAH CHAYES: Well, yes.  That’s all I wanted to say.  I mean the only positive thing in this election is that it is necessary to save the state as it is, and therefore there is a need to transfer power one way or the other.  Whether the election will be the great transformative event that everybody expects is, I think, delusional.

TOM CARVER: Pashtoon, how does it seem to you from the ground?  Can you hear us? The question is whether you feel these elections are going to be as significant as people, commentators in the West are making out?

PASHTOON ATIF: Well, I think there is a real ____ when we talk about the importance of this election.  For us ____ ____ we wouldn’t necessarily, given this past two months.  We’ve participated quite enthusiastically in rallies and campaigns supporting one candidate or another.  It’s a story very significant.  However, what it results in the ____ seem to be very helpful or significant.  So for the people, it’s very important, but I’m not sure if the results will be of interest in the ____ of the people or how the people are interested or enthusiastic about it right now.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Thank you.  Sarah and Frederic, can you just give us some thoughts?  I mean we’re all familiar with the main candidates, but do you have any thoughts on anyone you want to single out particularly as candidates in this election, any comments you want to make about the individuals?

FREDERIC GRARE: Well, and again, there is nothing really surprising there to be – the mainstream candidate is Rassoul, Ghani and Abdullah.  What is absolutely extraordinary in this business, whatever deal to make the outcome, is that Rassoul may be in this like simply because he is the one with the smallest popular base within Afghanistan.  And this is, again, where a number of question marks start because everybody wonder what it means in terms of the organization, the election and so on and so forth.

SARAH CHAYES: Meaning, I think, you have someone who’s a frontrunner who’s really not very well known throughout the country.  He doesn’t have much of an independent political base, and yet he’s the frontrunner.  So how does that come about?  I think Pashtoon can describe this better than I can, but when you start looking at the rallies and who actually attended rallies and who was bussed in from what places and things like that, you see, once again, as in 2009, a significant use of the instruments of state power to influence the way this election goes.  

So it’s almost a – and just to sort of draw out what I think Pashtoon was saying, it’s almost as – or elaborate on it – it’s almost as though you've got two separate stories happening at the same time that are overlaying.  One is the genuine participation of the Afghan people in spite of 2009 and all of the disappointments then.  They are really mobilizing.  They're really getting out.  They're enthusiastic.  Their hope springs eternal.  It’s touching and moving as a testament, I think, to the ability of the Afghan people to still believe in these processes while at the same time under that surface you have the machinery.  I mean you can hear the levers being ground to ensure a certain outcome.  And those levers are not perfectly coordinated or perfectly aligned, but I think there is much more structure beneath the surface of what happens in Afghanistan than meets the eye.

TOM CARVER: Is that your sense, Pashtoon?

PASHTOON ATIF: Yes.  That’s how I see it as well, totally.

TOM CARVER: So the crowds that you're seeing, you're kind of – as Sarah says, there’s two things going on.  There’s a genuine outpouring and desire to take part, but then there’s other people who are being bussed in to give the appearance of popularity for the main candidate.

SARAH CHAYES: Among other types of slate of hand.

TOM CARVER: Is that right, Pashtoon?

PASHTOON ATIF: Yes.  So now I’ve been talking to people there.  You talk to some people, some groups of people who actually want a change and who are participating in these campaigns and rallies voluntarily just because they want to change something, just because they want to see new faces in the government.  But there are also people who are – especially on the contradict side – I mean I’ve been talking to some people who are involved in this campaign, and they don't ____ ____ that they are going to win the election through these campaigns or through votes.  So they are trying to – even though they are doing the campaign, these big rallies and gathering people, they still are trying to find their way in the system or to go with the system in order to win this election.  So they themselves do not believe that the election could be won by votes.

TOM CARVER: Vote for the mandate.  Okay.  Frederic?

FREDERIC GRARE: Well, I think the point to underline is there’s a gap between the expectations, and they are genuine democratic expectation within the country with genuine expectations regarding the day-to-day life of the people in terms of security, economic well-being and so on.  It’s – and the actual mechanism of the election goes far beyond who is going to be elected on the selected.  This is a question of for ____ committee of the state.  This is the capacity of the state to resist whatever pressure will be put on it by the insurgency.  This is not something that we’re going to see tomorrow after the election; it’s something that will come in the months to come as there is a risk at some point that the state itself may not collapse all of a sudden but suddenly be reduced to a very, very limited role.

SARAH CHAYES: I’d like to come back just a second on you wanted to talk about the individuals a little bit.  So we talked about Rassoul, who has worked for President Karzai since day one: basically quite a weak character; kind of pliable and malleable, quite elderly.  You have Arshaf Ghani, who has this incredibly bizarre profile of a guy who claims to be opposed to President Karzai and yet he’s worked for him not quite since day one, but just about.  And so he likes to cast himself as an opposition figure while obviously not being that.  He has dosed him as his main vice presidential candidate.  This guy, although he has a lot of support among the Uzbek minority community, which is about approximately ten percent of the population, is otherwise remembered for incredibly both bloody deeds and double-dealing during the Jihad.  

So what you're looking at is the kind of institutionalization of a decision not to move in the direction of transitional justice.  We are not going to talk about what anybody did in past wars.  We’re going to rehabilitate them all.  That’s going to have, I think, places – these people have less scars on the landscape that are remembered, and that’s going to have an impact.  And then you have Abdullah Abdullah, sort of perennial opposition figure, also quite weak willed.  So you don't have who is seen to represent the sort of Northern Alliance, the northern factions.  There are people there on the ground in Afghanistan who know a lot more than I do.  But what I can say is that that coalition is not a unified one.  And so the degree to which Abdullah Abdullah represents, between quotation marks, “the North,” is a questionable one too.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Well, let’s open it up to questions.  Does anyone want to – this is obviously on the record, and please mute your phone, as you guys have been doing, when you're not speaking.  Anyone want to start the questions?

ROD NORDLAND: Yeah.  Hello.  This is Rod Nordland calling from Kabul.

SARAH CHAYES: Hi, Rod.

ROD NORDLAND: Hi, Sarah.  How are you doing?

SARAH CHAYES: Great.  How are you?

ROD NORDLAND: Good, good.  Yeah, just – for what they're worth, the – some of the polls that have been done are suggesting that Rassoul is going to be a distant third and that the much bigger share is for Abdullah and Ghani.  What do you think is – how much of a conundrum is this going to be if Rasul really does get clobbered in the elections?  And do you think that’s going to be a destabilizing factor?

SARAH CHAYES: I, again, don't think that that’s how it’s going to work out.  I think that polls in Afghanistan, number one, are unbelievably unreliable.  I mean I just – I’ve never seen a poll that I thought had any relationship to reality, either in its methodology or in its results.  So that’s one point.  And the other point, if – even if it were accurate, if – as Pashtoon just said, the – what people actually put in valid boxes is only going to have a, I would say, indirect relationship to the result that comes out.  And so I just – and again, the notion that the United States Government put all this money into polling, it’s interesting because it adds to this climate of a real electoral campaign.  But given what we just said about the lack of connection between the two narratives, I just don't think you can look at polls and think of them as having any relationship to what’s going to happen.

FREDERIC GRARE: You can also look at the process like differently.  Rod, the key question, and I think that was quite implicit in our introduction, which was the degree by which Karzai himself would be able to play a role in both Karzai and from that perspective, Rassoul is also the first choice because he’s the weakest in terms of electoral base.  But he doesn’t fundamentally ____ anything if any of the three wins.  And of course will be slightly different if Ghani wins because he’s probably much more strong willed than any of the two others.

SARAH CHAYES: I would agree with that.  And even Ghani, I think he likes to project this sort of opposition flavor, but he also is quite susceptible to constraints that might be placed on him.  And I think Karzai’s pretty effective at coming up with the right constraints.

TOM CARVER: Another question?

PAUL SHINKMAN: Yes, hi.  This is Paul Shinkman at US News.

TOM CARVER: Hi, Paul.  Go ahead.

PAUL SHINKMAN: Thanks very much for doing the call.  I’ve been interested in hearing some of the U.S. leaders talking about the importance of this election, not much of the election itself but for Afghanistan moving forward with Karzai and the people assigned to BSA.  A lot of people have said, “Well, let’s just wait around and see who comes up next.”  And I wonder if there’s a sense among the Afghan people that this is more than just an election to choose the next president but rather could kind of be a bellwether for the entire future of Afghanistan and U.S. participation there.  What is the mood on the ground like with that regard?

TOM CARVER: That would be a question for Pashtoon.

PASHTOON ATIF: Yes, I can.

TOM CARVER: Did you hear the question?

PASHTOON ATIF: Well, I didn’t hear the question.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  The question was about the continued U.S. involvement and whether the election is likely to – how the election is likely to implement, to affect that.

SARAH CHAYES: Right.  It was what’s the feeling on the ground about whether the election will really result in a change for the future of Afghanistan and whether Afghans think the election is about keeping the U.S. there.

TOM CARVER: The U.S., yeah.

PASHTOON ATIF: Well, the one thing is that there almost every country that has said except for one, and that’s that they win the election, they won't sign the BSA.  So what people are hoping to happen, that whoever comes and wins the election will sign the BSA, which will allow for the U.S. soldiers in the country.  So that’s one good that people have from this election.

SARAH CHAYES: Do they see it as something that will transform the country, put the country on a new footing, the election?

PASHTOON ATIF: I don't think that a lot of people believe that there will be a significant difference or a significant change from out of this election.  But I think they just want to see that and they do not want the U.S. to leave the country alone, which is the current situation seems like it.  So we hope that if the U.S. will be able to stay here and will provide the support.  But they do not – but a lot of people do not see this election to bring about a huge difference, a huge change.

TOM CARVER: And how much is the election about the U.S. role?  Is the U.S. role a big feature in the election?

PASHTOON ATIF: I won't be able to share the picture ____, but it’s a – but I think I can say that that’s one role that people have.  That’s one good thing that people think can happen after this election and whoever wins, because all those kinds of hope that they will sign the BSA.  So the people are saying that at least will be secure, the people relations with the United States will be secure, will be there, that nothing else happens.  And that’s especially in the case of the ____ which people say that it will be pretty much the same government.

TOM CARVER: Right.  Okay.  Paul, does that answer your question?

PAUL SHINKMAN: To be honest, I actually couldn't hear Pashtoon very well.  His line was kind of breaking up on my end.  Could you hear him okay?

SARAH CHAYES: Yeah.  You want me to recap it, yeah?

TOM CARVER: You want to recap it with Sarah?

PAUL SHINKMAN: If you don't mind, yeah, that would be very helpful.

SARAH CHAYES: Yeah, yeah.  Sure.  He said basically that what is a significant factor, maybe not the most important factor, but a factor in how Afghans see this election, is because all of the candidates but one said that they would sign the BSA, that Afghans feel that this election will, at least, as he put it, secure the relationship with the United States, and that that’s something very important that they're looking forward to from this election.  But they don't see the election as delivering a gigantic change, not putting the country onto any kind of new footing or anything like that, more continuity than change except with respect to the U.S. relationship, which he said was particularly significant in the case of Zalmai Rasul, which, according to Pashtun, would practically be the same administration, except that Zalmai Rasul has said that he would sign the BSA.

FREDERIC GRARE: Well, I think it calls for an additional comment, which is that, I mean if people are not really voting for Econidad because they know it’s going to be a continuity with all the dissatisfaction that has been expressed already over the past few months and years and expect the U.S. to just stay there as a reassuring sector, and I can understand that.  I think it’s legitimate.  At the same time, the – exposing themselves to some of these illusions because, no matter what –

SARAH CHAYES: Exactly.

FREDERIC GRARE: – there is – I mean the BSA might, at best, be a reassuring factor for a while, but there are limits to what it will be able to achieve in any case.  So if this is seriously a strong component of the vote, then there are reasons to be worried about the future and the willingness and capacity of the people to mobilize behind the regime if the violence increases.

SARAH CHAYES: And I would say, just from experience from 2009, there was a collective nervous breakdown after that election.  It was unbelievably palpable.  The disappointment in the population as well as they might know how – what everything looked like and how rigged it appeared that it was going to be, there was this sort of illogical hope and enthusiasm even then.  And I have to say October, November, December of 2009, I saw a real shift in people’s attitudes toward everything.  I mean you saw people almost re-engineering their lives.  And I don't think that has been remembered very well in the time afterwards, where Karzai was able fairly effectively to paint 2009 as a case of international interference with an Afghan process, whereas that is not how Afghans experienced it.  And I just think that that can sometimes be misleading.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Other questions?

SANGWON YOON: Hi.  This is Sangwon Yoon from Bloomberg News.

TOM CARVER: Hi.

SARAH CHAYES: Hi.

TOM CARVER: Go ahead.

SANGWON YOON: Okay.  So how much would you say that the Afghans have learned their lesson from the previous election, and I’m just trying to get a sense of, after the runoffs or whatever that takes place and that concludes the election, how long will the transition period take before the government decides to really stabilize?  And would that potentially affect the December 2014 timeline at all?

TOM CARVER: Frederic?

FREDERIC GRARE: Well, I think this is the wrong way to ask the question.  I think the real question is: will the government be able to stabilize and not how long it will take for it to stabilize.  And you can expect some arrangement to take place.  Whatever the exact order at the end of the process of the three main candidates that we mentioned, there’ll be some rearrangement.  If you look at who supports whom today, Kanoni was in the loyal position to Karzai recently is now the vice president of this regime, meaning that he has found ____ ____ with him.  And you’ve got a series of candidates like that who have been shifting from one ad hoc alliance to another one.  This kind of dynamic is going to play out right after the election in any case, and it’s difficult to predict what it’s going to be like.  But what is very uncertain today is whether the government will be able to stabilize at all.  Yes, there will be a government, most likely.  Yes, it will form something of some value for some time.  The question is really how deep this will go.  And there are reasons to be skeptical about that.

TOM CARVER: And what about the second question about the relationship between that and the deadline of December?

FREDERIC GRARE: I mean – well, the deadline of December is a complicating factor because if you have a deadline, then you're indicating you open on that; you're losing anyway.  And there are good reasons to believe that the pressure on the government will increase will increase as we get closer to the deadline.  It’s ____ ____ on the insurgency, the first thing you will test – the first thing you will do is test the solidity of the new government.  And then, again, whoever wins, whatever the final arrangement, you have a period when the pressure will increase.  And the question mark is whether the government will be able to hold on in that pressure.  And we cannot say no right now.  We cannot say yes with 100 percent certainty this is really the way this will happen that will be decided for the future of the country.

SARAH CHAYES: And that testing, I would say it’s going to – there are two different ways that it could go.  It could go testing peripheral areas.  For example, Kandahar, which was the former Taliban stronghold, has been quite Taliban – relatively Taliban free in the last number of months.  And the question is, do they move back into Kandahar or do they move in more significantly in the east and along the ring road, or do they work in Kabul in a variety of ways, through spectacular attacks like they've been doing.  But also could they be working through kind of fifth-column figures, who are, for example, the current interior minister is very close to the Pakistani government.  And so there are ways also of almost investing the government from within, which can also be part of these negotiations that – or deal making that Frederic is alluding to.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  Other questions?

SANGWON YOON: One follow-up, if I may.

SARAH CHAYES: Yeah.

TOM CARVER: Yeah, go ahead.

SANGWON YOON: Well, then, after my question of basically the lessons learned and things like that, the ____ on the ground, would you say that the risks of like what Frederic said on whether the government will be able to stabilize or not and the risks that come with when they don't stabilize or they're not able to stabilize, would you say that there is a consensus among voters on how crucial that is?  And while it’ll be difficult to tell depending on what the results of the election will be, that this is one of the priorities.

SARAH CHAYES: I’d also just like to go back, and on “Lessons Learned,” the people – because I forgot that you had framed your question that way – the people who really didn’t learn the lessons are international decision makers.  I mean it’s absolutely shocking to me the degree to which they have blundered into this election without taking kind of minimal precautions that we wouldn't show have a repeat of 2009, and the degree to which international commentators and decision makers are, once again, touting this as a gigantic positive game changer based on almost no hard evidence.  So that’s where lessons really have not been learned.

Among Afghans, I’m not sure that the degree of concern about potential implosion, which there’s a lot of concern, whether that or sort of fraying, as Frederic might put it differently, I’m not sure that concern is yet translating into more constructive ways of working together going forward.

FREDERIC GRARE: But if we’re talking of an election, what is absolutely obvious in everything we read and say, which is there is a complete disconnect between the political demand on the one side and the political author on the other one.  So it’s not so much a question of have the Afghans learned their lesson.  I mean the Afghans are like everybody else; they want security.  They want well being and so on and so forth, and they have realized that they got it very perfectly in the previous regime.  Now, is the political offer which is on the table capable and willing to provide that?  Well, this is to be seen, as usual.

TOM CARVER: I guess another way of looking at it is: do you think the state is any stronger than it was three or four years ago at the last election?

SARAH CHAYES: I don't, and I think as part of the continuity that we’re likely to see post-election, I think you will see a fragile and contested political order, which, as Frederic suggests, the more fragile and contested it is the less robust it will be to withstand whatever pressures are put on it, be it by Taliban, be it by other activities of neighbors, not just Pakistan, but especially Pakistan.

FREDERIC GRARE: I want to say some – one point here: when you speak of the state, I mean there is a state machinery, and there is no question that some progress has been made on that.  But I mean this points out the big, big, big mistake which has been done, which is the neglect of the political consolidation, and this is where the state can no longer – is probably no stronger than it was some years ago and where all the fragility comes of that, because everything else may be not good but better than it was.  It is – if there is no viable political system, then this might slow very quickly, or implode, I mean as you want to put it.

SARAH CHAYES: And just one more word on that –

TOM CARVER: Time for one more question.

SARAH CHAYES: Okay.  Sorry.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Yeah.

TOM CARVER: Anyone else want to talk?

MATT ROSENBERG: Matt Rosenberg from the New York Times.

[Crosstalk]

SARAH CHAYES: Yeah.  Hey.  [Laughter]

TOM CARVER: Hi, Matt.

MATT ROSENBERG: How are you?  I’ve got a question.  What would you guys, if you were the international community, what would you have done differently given the last few years the Karzai government has been increasingly hostile.  They really want just foreigners to butt out.  And it’s very apparent.  And the power of the interaction regime is increasingly limited to, “We’ll withdraw money.”  That’s the only lever they have.  So what would you have done differently to get ready for this election if you were them?  As you said, you don't think they prepared very well.

SARAH CHAYES: Well, I think they're – in terms of the election, they're a lot – who paid for the election, right?  I mean so I actually do think that conditionality on what the international community is facilitating is a minimum.  But the other main thing – and I think Frederic will talk about this in more detail – is this fixation.  So on the election itself, if you've got your name on it, which we have put our names on it – we, as the international community – then you have to require minimum standards of freedom and fairness, or else you're just making a travesty of democratic principles as well as democratic processes.  But otherwise I would say the fixation on bilateral negotiations with the Taliban with the election as the sole other means of getting – of allowing other stakeholders to participate in a political process, that was a very mistaken architecture.

TOM CARVER: Frederic?

MATT ROSENBERG: What would you have done differently there?

FREDERIC GRARE: The one thing that could have been done differently is the initiation of inclusive political process much earlier in the debate.  I mean for an election to work relatively smoothly, it requires a minimal consensus among all political axes as to what the system is, the way – well, the degree of acceptance of basic things as to what defines us collectively as a nation.  And then in that context, you can accepting.  Then this political dialogue never existed when it was tried, it was reduced between an attempt to have the government or to the Taliban.  In other words, you gave a governor whose power was declining and whose legitimacy was declining an overwhelmingly important in front of an insurgency, which was important, of course, but which was just that, an insurgency, at the exclusion of all political actions – which meant that you gave those two actors totally undue important.  And anyway, even if you still consider that they were the two main important actors, you could have changed the political dynamic in the country by introducing this political dialogue much earlier on.  Now, the dynamic within the country, because the election too is changing, and this is going to be increasingly difficult to resume that, especially if it’s difficult or even impossible to really stabilize the country, because the balance of power within the various forces in the country will make it increasingly difficult.  And that’s what we could have done differently.

TOM CARVER: Okay.  We’re over time on the media call.  Obviously many other issues that could be covered.  If you want to carry on talking to Sarah and Frederic, you can always contact them through Clara or contact them yourselves directly.  But for the moment that’s the end of the call, and we’ll put the transcript up within the next few hours.  Okay.  Thank you very much, everyone, for joining in.