Afghanistan Elections: Endgame or New Beginning?
Afghanistan Elections: Endgame or New Beginning?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Report 101 / Asia

Afghanistan Elections: Endgame or New Beginning?

Elections for Afghanistan's National Assembly and Provincial Councils are a critical opportunity to achieve a sustainable peace in a country that is still emerging from a quarter century of conflict, created and exacerbated by ethnic, sectarian, regional and linguistic divisions.

Executive Summary

Elections for Afghanistan's National Assembly and Provincial Councils are a critical opportunity to achieve a sustainable peace in a country that is still emerging from a quarter century of conflict, created and exacerbated by ethnic, sectarian, regional and linguistic divisions. A representative and functional National Assembly could prove a crucial step in stabilising Afghanistan by allowing diversity of voices in decision-making. Provincial Councils could also help extend the authority of central government by introducing legally approved layers of devolution.

But the September polls will only succeed in stabilising Afghanistan's political transition if the elections are for institutions with properly defined roles and responsibilities; if the electoral system enables a true reflection of popular will; if the election process, including registration and vote counting is properly run; and if overall security is sufficient to allow for as free and fair a contest as possible in a country which still bears the scars of civil war.

In the 2004 presidential polls, Afghans had demonstrated immense enthusiasm for the political transition despite formidable security and other challenges. Preparations for these more complex elections are, however, set against a backdrop of electoral delays and neglect for the future institutions that will emerge.

Institutions. Little groundwork has been laid for legislative or locally devolved bodies. Instead all the eggs of state have been put in the basket of one man, the chief executive, President Hamid Karzai. Indeed the political environment created over three and a half years of the transitional process must call into question the ability of the new representative bodies to have a real voice in the future of Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan is to proceed on the path to stability, President Karzai’s government and the international community will have to urgently build the new legislature's capacity. Defining the roles and the responsibilities of the Provincial Councils must become a priority for the National Assembly. And just weeks before elections are due, all stakeholders must collectively strive to make the process a success.

Electoral System. Instead of empowering political parties, essential for a successful political transition, Karzai's hostility has only added to their difficulties. The new Electoral Law -- not released until May, which excludes the use of party symbols on ballot papers, has undermined nascent democratic groupings, while old jihadi networks continue to have access to power and resources. The multi-member constituency Single Non-Transferable Voting (SNTV) system also works against new political parties that are, as yet, incapable of the sophisticated strategising and discipline needed to translate popular support into electoral victories. By encouraging appeals to narrow ethnic interests rather than broad-based constituencies, the electoral system could result in the absence of workable caucuses within the new National Assembly, further raising fears about the seeds of future instability.

Election Process. This has been marred so far by the lack of strategic planning on the part of the United Nations and the Afghan government. The two parts of the process that the Bonn Agreement specifically earmarked for the UN -- a pre-poll census and a voters’ registry -- have been amongst the least satisfactory. This lack of planning has held these polls captive to a tight six-month timetable. And technical needs rather than the political aspirations of the Afghan people continue to drive preparations. Ballot production and distribution have received more time than the vetting of candidates in a land where numerous unpunished atrocities have taken place. Widespread civic education, essential given the lack of democratic experience, only got underway once the electoral process had begun. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees who took part in the presidential poll are likely to be disenfranchised for reasons of cost and convenience.

Despite the shortcomings of the electoral process, there are also some signs of hope. The Joint Electoral Management Body Secretariat (JEMBS), overseeing the election process, is pushing ahead with the hand it has been dealt and driving technical preparations for infinitely more complex polls at a faster pace than during the lead up to the presidential poll.

Over 5,000 candidates might make every stage of the preparations harder through sheer numbers, but these impressive numbers also demonstrate continued public interest in creating an Afghanistan where the ballot prevails, not the gun.

Tight electoral timelines place more emphasis on getting the work done, rather than capacity building. But some attention is finally being turned to the sustainability of electoral institutions and future polls. In the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) and Provincial Election Commissions (PECs), the country has important new electoral bodies in place.

Security. Yet heightened insecurity continues to pose one of the gravest challenges to free and fair elections. In recent months anti-government activity, particularly cross-border attacks from Pakistan, has been on the rise, and election workers have been attacked. With multiple provincial contests, these elections may well see an increase in factional violence as local power structures are challenged and, in some cases, long-term rivals put in direct competition. Much of this could take place after the announcement of results as the new political landscape creates winners and losers.

These elections thus stand as both a testing ground and incentive for a number of on-going programs to build security. These include the disarmament of both official and unofficial armed groups; the expansion of the Afghan National Army (ANA); the professionalisation of the Afghan National Police (ANP); as well as reform of the judicial system and imposition of the rule of law.

The Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) program, aimed at officially recognised armed groups, has moved some 60,000 men out of the security equation and the ANA can also be seen as an embryonic success, adding to stability on polling day and beyond. Other processes, including the disbanding of Illegal Armed Groups (IAG) have, however, lagged behind. District and provincial governors, along with local police also remain a major source of intimidation, largely because of a failure, thus far, to professionalise the police and to rid local administrations of corrupt individuals.

While electoral vetting cannot substitute for a transitional justice process, a disappointing level of prudence over political will prevailed in assessing candidate eligibility, allowing many responsible for human rights abuses to contest the polls. Both the Karzai administration and its international supporters must recognise that the pursuit of stability and an end to impunity should proceed in tandem. The government must also ensure that the backroom deal-making which allowed some commanders to keep their place on the ballot in exchange for undertakings of ongoing disarmament is zealously followed up.

As largely trusted actors, the international security forces in Afghanistan will have to play a particularly crucial role in providing security and building trust before, during, and after the elections. However, the slow pace of extending a robust peacekeeping presence outside Kabul during the transitional period has allowed regional commanders to entrench themselves. Indeed, instability, combined with a climate of impunity, could undermine the electoral process. Building a secure environment to allow people to confidently exercise their secret vote and to react quickly to factional fighting in the run up to, during and after the polls, should be the focus of attention for both national and international military forces.

But, above all, preparations for the new representative institutions should be urgently accelerated if they are to have a real voice and not descend into chaos and paralysis. Within Afghanistan a multiplicity of voices needs to be heard in setting future development and other pressing priorities, ending the historic intolerance of political opposition.

The international community too must not regard the polls simply as a convenient exit strategy. These historic polls stand closer to the beginning than the end of Afghanistan's political transition. History has already shown the catastrophic consequences of allowing the Afghan state to wither. As the transitional period comes to an end, the Karzai government and the international community must commit themselves to ensuring that Afghanistan and its citizens can continue to follow the path of a sustainable peace.

Kabul/Brussels, 21 July 2005

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.