Evaluating the Elections in Afghanistan

CAP panelists offer firsthand observations of last month’s Afghanistan elections and what steps the United States needs to take going forward no matter who wins.


“It’s really extraordinary that people did vote in the face of that intimidation,” said Eric Bjornlund, a co-founder and principal of Democracy International at a Center for American Progress event Tuesday. Bjornlund spoke on a panel that provided firsthand observations of last month’s Afghanistan elections with Jackie Northam, a national security correspondent for National Public Radio, and CAP Senior Fellow Brian Katulis. The panel was moderated by Caroline Wadhams, a Senior Policy Analyst at CAP. This event was the first in a series CAP will be hosting this fall about U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.

All three panelists recently returned from Afghanistan, where Bjornlund and Katulis were international election observers with Democracy International and Northam was reporting for NPR.

 While Bjornlund stated that it was too early to make definitive conclusions about the elections and whether they were legitimate, it was clear that there were irregularities in the voting. It appeared that turnout was lower than in the presidential elections in 2004, with under 6 million voters showing up at the polls.

Northam also described turnout in Kabul as low, saying that “there should have been a better turnout but there simply wasn’t.” Bjornlund discussed how the Taliban had threatened people who turned out to vote. “There’s no question that the climate intimidated a lot of people from going to the polls,” he said. He called the election “the most challenging to observe that we’ve encountered” in decades around the world and cited problems with accessing rural polling stations outside of provincial capitals.

The panelists agreed that allegations of fraud had emerged as a major issue post-election. The Electoral Complaints Commission, or ECC, an independent Afghan body created to deal with election problems, has already received at least 600 serious allegations of fraud.

Stressing the ongoing process of fraud resolution, Bjornlund said that “we’re still hopeful that this process might unfold well enough that the international community and the Afghan public can afford it some credibility,” which could give the new government more support and a mandate to deal with the country’s multiple troubles.

While agreeing that the process is ongoing, Northram expressed her concerns that “perception is half the battle” and that fraud allegations had already stained the electoral legitimacy of whichever candidate turns out victorious.

The votes are still being tallied and show Karzai ahead at this point. Election officials are supposed to release the results on September 17, but this deadline may pass as the ECC investigates the allegations of fraud and intimidation. There could still be a runoff if Karzai doesn’t receive more than 50 percent of the vote. As the process moves forward, the panelists focused on what the United States should do.

Katulis drove the point home that first and foremost the United States will need a credible partner in the new government. U.S. troop commitments might increase soon, but without effective central and local governments the country will not see long-term stability or prosperity, and U.S. national security would remain at risk.

Katulis suggested that the United States should put more of the responsibility of dealing with Afghan problems on Afghans. “Afghanistan’s leaders must come to grips with the insurgency and the forces that drive it,” he stressed. Other problems the government needs to address include corruption, narco-trafficking, and weak governance.

It would be unwise for the United States to commit more resources to Afghanistan without a stronger commitment from Afghanistan leaders to address these problems. Katulis argued that the United States can help the new leaders govern in a meaningful way, but the leaders need to step up.

Northam also discussed the challenges of having an effective partner in the Afghan government. President Karzai’s inclusion of warlords with records of human rights violations or criminal behavior such as Karzai’s running mate Mohammed Qasim Fahim or his choice to reappoint General Abdual Rashid Dostom have been viewed as a “stick in the eye” to U.S. policymakers and make it difficult for the United States to cooperate with the Afghan government.

At home the United States needs to move the debate on Afghanistan beyond rhetoric and have a serious discussion about its goals, Katulis argued. He said there’s a lack of clarity with the U.S. strategy and particularly about the end goals of the strategy. America’s top commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal recently submitted his assessment on the situation in Afghanistan, and the United States should use this opportunity to clearly define its end goals in the country. This debate is even more urgent given the likelihood of troop increases, mounting U.S. troop casualties, and opinion polls indicating declining public support for the Afghanistan war.

The United States needs to think more clearly about the implications of local governance in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq where local strongmen control the instruments of power, Katulis noted. A stable government in these countries will most likely not resemble the United States, and such local warlord leaders may need to be co-opted if stability is to be achieved. In response to a question from the audience, Bjornlund noted the absence of well-developed political parties in Afghanistan, and suggested that this was an important factor restricting the development of a new generation of political leaders.

For more on this event please see the events page.

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