Watching the Afghan Elections

On Thursday, August 20, Afghans will go the polls for the second time in their history to vote in presidential and provincial council elections. Candidates for president must secure more than 50 percent of the vote to win, or the elections will go to a second round in early October. Nearly 40 presidential candidates and more than 3,100 candidates for provincial councils are running in an Afghan-led process administered by the Independent Elections Commission.

Almost four out of every five Afghans have registered to vote in the elections, but widespread insecurity throughout the country may lead to low turnout, especially for the Pashtuns, who are located mostly in the south and east of the country. Furthermore, Afghan perceptions of Karzai’s dominance and foreign meddling, ballot buying, and additional irregularities could diminish the elections’ legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghans.

Leaders in the NATO-International Security Assistance Force have placed great stock in a successful outcome, defined as a legitimate process that expresses the will of the Afghan people, and the Taliban has responded with concerted efforts to derail the process. The insurgency has escalated attacks on the international presence in Kabul, threatened to attack polling centers on Election Day, and has warned voters not to show up at the polls.

On Tuesday, insurgents conducted attacks throughout the country, targeting Afghan government, NATO-ISAF, and U.N. personnel and facilities. This included launching rockets in the vicinity of the Afghan presidential palace and Ministry of Defense, and exploding a suicide car bombing in Kabul on a main road from Kabul to Jalalabad, which killed two U.N. staffers and as many as eight others. These attacks come on the heels of last Saturday’s car bomb just outside NATO-ISAF headquarters, which killed seven people and injured 91.

President Barack Obama has called these elections the most important event of the year in Afghanistan. His administration has indicated that elections are essential for implementing their new counterinsurgency plan, hoping that elections will legitimize the Afghan government and provide an effective partner for the United States.

At a recent Center for American Progress event, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, stated, “…many issues that we would like to focus on—anticorruption, a national reintegration amnesty program, improving the governance at the sub-central level…all of these issues are vitally important in an overall counterinsurgency effort. And we’re working on them, but until the election legitimizes the government, whoever wins…we have had to focus on that.”

No matter what the outcome is, following the elections the United States, NATO-ISAF, and the Afghan government will need to move quickly before public support for the mission further erodes.

This will mean:

  • Continuing the effort to increase the civilian components of U.S. and NATO efforts such as governance and economic development
  • A strategic shift toward strengthening local government, or in the words of Holbrooke’s advisor Barnett Rubin, “rebuilding the relationship between the subnational authorities and local communities”
  • A widescale diplomatic effort to garner stronger regional support
  • Continuing efforts to strengthen the Pakistani state and target the safe havens on the Pakistani side of the border.

The Obama administration will also need to address the American public’s growing reluctance about the mission by more clearly defining what success means in Afghanistan, explaining how our counterinsurgency strategy leads to a counterterrorism objective, articulating our timeframe, and developing a set of metrics that would show whether we are making progress.

Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Policy Analyst for National Security and Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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