Saturday, October 16, 2004
# Posted 8:46 AM by Patrick Belton
AFGHAN ELECTIONS POST-MORTEM: From who else but our dashing Afghanistan correspondent:
Two of my Afghan friends and colleagues arrived in Washington, DC yesterday. Their satisfaction and enthusiasm with the elections in Afghanistan can hardly be overstated. Both showed off the fading indelible ink on their thumbs (one of them had initially gone to a polling place where the pens proved delible, but the mistake was caught early and the voters sent to a different polling station). One said, eyes twinkling: “It was a miracle. There were hundreds of us, and everyone was standing in one straight line. Afghans never stand in line, they always crush in together. But that day, we all stood in line and waited to vote.” The other pulled out his mobile phone and proudly showed the digital photo he’d taken in the privacy of the polling booth: a ballot with a big black checkmark next to Hamid Karzai’s picture.
It’s unsurprising that two young, married Kabulis who work for a Western NGO and who backed Karzai would find the election satisfying. They have everything to gain from a continuation of the policies of the last three years. But after the initial shock of the washable ink and the soon-retracted opposition boycott, the reports out of Afghanistan have suggested that most Afghans throughout the country shared my friends’ enthusiasm. The electoral process was extraordinarily popular. When all is said and done, with a mere 43 purported irregularities under investigation by the joint UN-Afghan panel (from over 5,000 polling stations) and all the major opposition candidates committed to accepting the panel’s findings, it is hard to imagine the delible-ink scandal leaving an indelible blot on the Karzai presidency.
The best news of all, of course, was the remarkably limited violence. On September 24, I argued that the former Taliban and other violent malcontents had already lost their chance to derail the election. In the event, they were almost entirely inactive. A Taliban spokesman afterward claimed that this election-day restraint was a deliberate policy to spare the lives of fellow Muslims. Besides this unprecedented goodwill, a few other factors were probably at work:
• The rebels in southern Afghanistan are not meaningfully a Taliban resurgence (as I argued in July), but a loosely organized ethnic-Pashtun insurgency. As the election approached and Qanuni seemed likely to force Karzai into a runoff, community leaders throughout the Pashtun south realized that if their people didn’t make it to the polls, they might end up with a Panjshiri Tajik president. I imagine at this point they made it clear to the insurgents that everyone in their villages would be voting, for the good of the Pashtuns. And the insurgents blinked first.
• Karzai has been working hard at dialogue with the Pashtun insurgent leaders, particularly those from Gulbuddin Hekmetyar’s Hizb-i-Islami party. It’s possible that many more have been won over or bought off than we know about.
• According to my friends’ reports, Pakistan’s President Musharraf quietly but forcefully increased security along the Afghan border and in Afghan refugee camps in the weeks leading up to the election. This did a lot to keep out al-Qaeda troublemakers. (Iyad Allawi, take note).
• The insurgents dedicated significant resources, perhaps even a majority of their resources, to attempted attacks in Kabul which were thwarted by extraordinary security measures.
Whatever its causes, their failure is a major blow to the credibility of the insurgency, and for all its flaws, this election is a heartening victory. The Afghans are rightly proud and excited; they deserve much praise for this imperfect but important step toward stable democratic government. I’ve also talked to Afghans who feel that the U.S. government deserves more credit than I’ve been inclined to offer. They point to the role of Zalmay Khalilzad (American ambassador and Karzai’s éminence grise) in keeping the warlords on board when Karzai began throwing his weight around. As one rumor has it, all three major Panjshiri ministers tried to resign when Marshal Fahim was dropped as vice-president, but Khalilzad summoned them to his residence for a blunt remonstration. “Without America, you would still be isolated in Panjshir, alone and on the defensive. Do you want to go back there?” He’s also been making the rounds of all the opposition candidates, doing what he can to make sure they’re reconciled to a Karzai victory. Khalilzad’s success as horse-trader-in-chief deserves acknowledgment, and reflects well on the administration that appointed him.
But America’s larger failure in Afghanistan remains: we have not committed enough troops to secure the country, nor managed to convince other countries to commit their troops. Our initial policy of Occupation Lite was reasonable, even prudent – no one wanted to trigger the historically familiar Afghan response to foreign armies. By last year, however, all sides recognized that we were well below the troop threshold that the people of Afghanistan would tolerate. When asked, most Afghans responded that they would welcome more foreign troops if that would bring some accountability to the local warlords. NATO accordingly committed itself to expanding ISAF – and did next to nothing. America had committed the bulk of its armed forces to Iraq, and continued to focus its diplomatic attention on getting support for the war there, not on coaxing uncertain allies into securing Afghanistan.
This election is not a vindication of that policy. It would be an understandable but grave error to mistake the lack of violence surrounding this poll for a stable security situation in Afghanistan. While I don’t share the unrelenting gloominess of Human Rights Watch’s pre-election report, they correctly document that the threat of violence remains the primary political backdrop throughout Afghanistan (in particular for Afghans outside Kabul). As most commentators on Afghanistan recognize, the coming parliamentary poll will be far more precarious than the recently concluded elections. Without major improvements between now and then, the enthusiasm and success attending Afghanistan’s first election will be matched by the disillusionment and failure of its second.
In the first place, the south-eastern insurgency isn’t quite as depleted as its feeble voter intimidation efforts would suggest. Many of the Pashtun leaders who united to prevent a Qanuni or Dostum presidency are still hostile to America and sympathetic to the rebels. In the parliamentary elections, without the clear goal of maintaining a fairly popular co-ethnic president in power, the violent rejectionists will face less intra-Pashtun opposition. If they rally, project their power out of remote provinces like Zabul, Uruzgan, and Khost, and frighten voters away from the polls in populous Helmand and Kandahar, the insurgents could actually threaten the legitimacy of the parliament.
But violent rejection by Pashtun insurgents has never been the main threat to peaceful elections in Afghanistan. The greater, more general threat is from warlords who violently support their client candidates, especially in the ethnically divided north. In the recently concluded presidential campaign, violence of this sort was limited, because it would have been ineffective. It was never likely to affect Karzai’s overwhelming lead, one way or the other; and when Fahim may have been tempted to try it, a prompt and forceful response from Khalilzad and NATO deterred him. In the south, Pashtun tribal differences were set aside in the attempt to get out the vote for Karzai.
The game will be entirely different in the parliamentary elections, with scores of local contests at stake and the overall outcome anything but pre-ordained. In constituencies dominated by a single militia commander, any other candidates risk persecution and assassination. In constituencies divided between rival commanders, the race would be real but potentially bloody. With dozens of close races around the country, a great deal will hang on ballot irregularities and perceived interference at the polls. If the parliamentary elections are monitored as weakly as the presidential election, such disputes are all the more likely to be resolved by force.
My friend Mike wryly writes from Kabul, “I get the feeling that it's easy to arrive in Afghanistan, spend a few days looking around, and then confidently announce that the next few months is absolutely critical to the nations’ future, etc etc.” Still, I do think the next months will be as crucial as any time since the Taliban fell. We have a short window in which to prepare for the parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, Karzai has repeatedly said that “the time of horse-trading is over” and that he does not expect warlords to have a strong voice in his cabinet. The big question of the coming winter is whether he means what he says; and whether the warlords will accept a disarmed and diminished role.
So what to do? First: we need to get more troops in there to back up Karzai and Khalilzad – their bold strategy of checking the warlords will sooner or later meet a forceful challenge, especially if they do push the disarmament program. These troops will have to come primarily from Europe. (Russia and India, two countries who at one point considered sending troops to Iraq, are both non-starters in Afghanistan). Fortunately, many countries that wouldn’t consider sending troops to Iraq could be talked into reinforcing Afghanistan, especially since the first election proved to be so very un-apocalyptic. Europe has a strong interest in stemming the flow of Afghan opium and refugees. The bad news for John Kerry is that this “internationalization” probably wouldn’t free up many US soldiers – most of the American soldiers in Afghanistan are chasing bin Laden and the Taliban, a task that neither Kerry nor Bush is likely to “outsource.” But more European troops could be invaluable in the coming election campaigns, to protect journalists and opposition party candidates, and to weaken rumors that America is rigging Afghan elections to its own ends.
Second: we need many more election monitors, much better election security (including stepped-up disarmament and demobilization), and an extensive voter education program. Parliamentary elections are more complex than presidential elections, and we should expect more (and more effective) attempts at fraud. Countering this will require increased funding and attention from foreign donors. Security should be provided by Afghan national troops and police where feasible, by foreign troops where necessary, and by warlord militias as rarely as possible.
Third: we need a counter-poppy strategy that is also pro-farmer. Stepped-up interdiction is essential; Karzai should use his strengthened position in the wake of elections to take on the drug lords as well as the warlords in his country, lest it turn into a narco-state. But aggressive eradication strategies will turn rural Afghans against the occupation and the Kabul government. We may hope that this year’s glutted market and price collapse will lead to fewer hectares of poppy cultivated next year. But the primary standard for success in the next few years should be increased hectares of alternative crops and better Afghan agricultural processing facilities, with diminished poppy cultivation as a secondary, dependent indicator. Until there are genuine alternative income sources for rural Afghans, we can’t start ploughing up the poppy fields.
Finally: the United States should be prepared for Hamid Karzai to lose the next presidential election. The enthusiasm with which Afghans are embracing elections recalls nothing so much as the first electoral rounds in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There, the bubble of expectations surrounding democracy was quickly deflated by harsh economic realities, and (to the horror of many in the West) the second round of elections went to former Communists. It’s easy to imagine a similar scenario playing out in Afghanistan at the end of Karzai’s term, with a disillusioned, still-impoverished electorate responding to the nationalism of a former warlord. The first reports from the vote-counting have Qanuni at 17 percent, compared to 15 percent for Abdul Rashid Dostum. We’ll see how things look when all the ballots have been counted. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see one of the two succeed in four years. As we negotiate the roadblocks of the next few years, we should keep such a contingency always in mind, and not back ourselves into a corner where Karzai becomes indispensable. There’d be no quicker way to dispel Afghans’ enthusiasm for democracy than to foolishly rig the election in Karzai’s favor next time.
(N.B. Many thanks to Mike, by the way, whose dispatches from the frontline have kept me up on events despite the fact that I’m out of the country. His analyses combine equally keen insight and humor, as for example:
“My favorite election quote to date comes from our Uzbek friend General Dostum, at a recent election rally: ‘It will be clear very soon who is a warlord and who is the people’s lord.’ Because ‘people’s lord’ has such a nice, democratic ring to it.”)
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