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Afghan elections and Af-Pak Strategy

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  • September 29, 2009

    The recent Afghan elections have thrown the Obama administration’s much proclaimed ‘stronger, smarter and comprehensive’ Af-Pak strategy into a quandary. One of the essential components of the Af-Pak strategy is transferring authority to a legitimate Afghan government, which in turn would pave the way for eventual US ‘exit’ from Afghanistan. To that extent, it was necessary that the elections be seen as fair and neutral in electing a candidate deemed ‘acceptable’ to most Afghans. However, widespread allegations that ballot boxes were stuffed, ballots pre-marked, and polling stations closed during the elections have largely discredited the process.

    The preliminary tally gives President Hamid Karzai 54.6 per cent of the vote, compared to 27.8 per cent for his main opponent, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The European Union's election monitoring team says a third of Karzai's votes are questionable. If the official, UN-backed, Electoral Complaints Commission agrees, Karzai's vote count could drop to less than 50 per cent, forcing him into a second round "run-off" vote against Abdullah. It may not be possible to hold such a vote before harsh winter weather cuts off Afghanistan's mountain regions, which would prolong the political inertia well into next spring.

    In March 2009, the Obama team sought to regain control of a just war that had gone ‘adrift’ under the Bush administration by bringing in 17,000 more troops, in part to assure security for voters in the Taliban-dominated areas of the south and east. But the extra troops did not bring in security. Only 39 per cent of voters turned out, greatly lower than the 70 per cent who voted in the 2004 election.

    The low turnout and the evidence of fraud have deepened the divisions within the international community over adding more troops to the Afghan battlefield. The US, UN and EU are finding it difficult to present a ‘unified voice’ on the election. The differences in international perceptions became public in an argument between the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, and his American deputy, Peter Galbraith. While Eide reportedly favoured a limited response to the allegations of fraud and thus leave Karzai with an election victory, Galbraith sought a wider annulment and recount of votes that might push Karzai into a second-round vote. With his proposal blocked, Galbraith left his post this month and is not expected to return.

    In this scenario, if Karzai is to become President again, his lack of legitimacy will only feed into the insurgent propaganda. The Taliban has always alleged that the Karzai government is corrupt and only a puppet of the foreign occupying forces. The present stalemate has allowed it to repeat these charges. A recent statement by the reclusive Mullah Omar denounced the election as fraudulent and “categorically rejected by the people”. The continuing chaos of the election process risks validating his words.

    One hears frustration from locals in Afghanistan, both at the international community’s role in providing security and at the Afghan government's failures to rebuild the country in ways that would improve their lives. For this reason and others, the US does not have the luxury of time in Afghanistan. It is unlikely to choose to wait until spring to have a certified winner of the election.

    General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander for Afghanistan, in a grim assessment of the conflict, warns that a “failure to ... reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) ... risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” McChrystal’s demand for further troops, however, comes at a time when opinion polls indicate an increasing American public desire to limit and even reduce commitment to an ‘un-winnable’ war. As intense debate in the Obama administration revolves around the need to send or not to send more troops into the Afghan abyss, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released in August found 51 per cent of Americans saying the war is not worth fighting, with 70 per cent of Democrats holding that opinion. Only a quarter of those polled supported an increase in troop levels. Obama is also under pressure from his own party members, notably Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., against any commitment towards an ‘open ended’ war. Late August, Democrat Senator Russ Feingold called for a “flexible timetable” for removing US troops from Afghanistan.

    NATO countries, too, are looking for an exit plan after the spike in violence over the past few months. Italy, which lost six soldiers this month, is the latest. In Germany, the Afghan conflict has become a major election issue. And if the violence and casualties mount, others will follow. An interesting parallel can be drawn with the Bush decision of troop surge in Iraq in 2006 in the face of withdrawal by several partners of the ‘coalition of the willing’.

    Faced with such a scenario, it is not entirely unexpected that the US would preside over a formula which largely ignores the electoral fraud allegations. There are reports that Richard Holbrooke, Obama's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is “shooting to get into a situation where negotiations” between factions in Afghanistan will lead to a "political settlement.”

    After weeks of bickering, the two agencies overseeing the election -- the Independent Election Commission and the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission -- agreed to rely on statistical sampling, rather than an in-depth investigation of alleged voting irregularities, a method seen as a ‘quick fix’ to avoid a run off.

    No doubt, amidst these efforts to manage the electoral mess, dreams of the ordinary Afghans would suffer yet again and leave them wondering about the utility of the Western-led election process. Afghanistan’s next president would be no different from his predecessor – one who rules with the support of ‘foreign forces’ and with little or no legitimacy. It is not hard to predict who will benefit the most from this fiasco -- the Taliban.