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Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Briefing 115 / Asia

Afghanistan: Exit vs Engagement

U.S. plans to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by 2014 would lead to a collapse of the government in Kabul and serious security risks for the region.

Overview

U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are now entering their tenth year and policymakers in Washington are looking for a way out. A policy review is due in December but the outline is already clear: U.S. forces will try to pummel the Taliban to bring them to the table, responsibility for security will increasingly be transferred to Afghan forces and more money will be provided for economic development. NATO partners agreed at the Lisbon summit to a gradual withdrawal of combat troops with the goal of transitioning to full Afghan control of security by the end of 2014. The aim will be a dignified drawdown of troops as public support wanes while at the same time ensuring that a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, at the very least, does not become the epicentre of transnational terrorism. While success is being measured in numbers of insurgents killed or captured, there is little proof that the operations have disrupted the insurgency’s momentum or increased stability. The storyline does not match facts on the ground.

The U.S. military is already touting successes in the area around Kandahar, the focus of the most recent fighting by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). President Hamid Karzai has established a “high peace council” to manage negotiations with the insurgents and greater efforts are planned for training the Afghan army and police. The U.S. and ISAF are only months away from declaring scores of districts safe for transition. An alluring narrative of a successful counter-insurgency campaign has begun to take shape.

As violence has increased, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have proven a poor match for the Taliban. Casualties among Afghan and ISAF forces have spiked, as have civilian casualties. Afghanistan still lacks a cohesive national security strategy and the Afghan military and police remain dangerously fragmented and highly politicised. On the other side, despite heavy losses in the field, insurgent groups are finding new recruits in Pakistan’s borderlands, stretching from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to Balochistan, and using the region to regroup, reorganise and rearm, with the support and active involvement of al-Qaeda, Pakistani jihadi groups and the Pakistan military. This strategic advantage has allowed the insurgency to proliferate in nearly every corner of the country. Contrary to U.S. rhetoric of the momentum shifting, dozens of districts are now firmly under Taliban control.

Nearly a decade after the U.S. engagement began, Afghanistan operates as a complex system of multi-layered fiefdoms in which insurgents control parallel justice and security organs in many if not most rural areas, while Kabul’s kleptocratic elites control the engines of graft and international contracts countrywide. The inflow of billions in international funds has cemented the linkages between corrupt members of the Afghan government and violent local commanders – insurgent and criminal, alike. Economic growth has been tainted by the explosion of this black market, making it nearly impossible to separate signs of success and stability from harbingers of imminent collapse. The neglect of governance, an anaemic legal system and weak rule of law lie at the root of these problems. Too little effort has been made to develop political institutions, local government and a functioning judiciary. Insurgents and criminal elements within the political elite have as a result been allowed to fill the vacuum left by the weak Afghan state.

Successive U.S. administrations deserve much of the blame for this state of affairs. From the start the policy was untenable; selecting some of the most violent and corrupt people in the country, stoking them up with suitcases of cash and promises of more to come and then putting them in charge was never a recipe for stability, never mind institution building.

The leadership in Washington has consistently failed to develop and implement a coherent policy. The shift of resources and attention from Afghanistan to Iraq almost immediately after the Taliban were first driven from Kabul also underscored a lack of strategic priority. The absence of policy coherence between Washington and its NATO allies early on was replicated by sharp divisions between civilian and military leaders – as reflected in the starkly opposed opinions of the Pentagon and the U.S. embassy in Kabul on the best way forward; most recently evidenced in the departure of General Stanley McChrystal. Measuring inputs rather than outcomes has allowed bureaucrats to trumpet illusory successes. Policymaking has been haphazard, based on the premise that if a bad idea is revived often enough, it might eventually work. Plans for reintegrating the Taliban and establishing local police militias have come and gone and come again with no positive results. Attempts at reconciliation have resulted, likewise, in little more than talk about talks.

Real work to build a capable police and military only began in 2008. Despite endless pledges to restore the rule of law, efforts to provide Afghans with rudimentary justice have barely started. The international community has repeatedly failed to acknowledge the link between stability and justice, though it has long been evident that grievances against predatory government actors are driving the insurgency.

All of these problems have led many to believe it is time for the foreign forces to leave. Unfortunately, a rush to the exit will not help Afghans nor will it address the very real regional and global security concerns posed by the breakdown of the Afghan state. Without outside support, the Karzai government would collapse, the Taliban would control much of the country and internal conflict would worsen, increasing the prospects of a return of the destructive civil war of the 1990s. Even a partial Taliban victory would provide succour and a refuge for Pakistani jihadi groups. That could intensify violence in Pakistan and increase attacks on India. Afghanistan’s neighbours would step up support for their proxies, injecting military resources, financing and new energy into the war. As conflict spreads – along with refugees, jihadis and other problems – the situation would be well beyond the control of a few drone strikes.

This paper is aimed at reminding policymakers of the deep problems that exist in Afghanistan. Any plan that fails to deal with the decay in Kabul will not succeed. President Hamid Karzai no longer enjoys the legitimacy and popularity he once had and he has subsequently lost his ability to stitch together lasting political deals. Despite the rhetoric surrounding reconciliation, Karzai is in no position to act alone as a guarantor for the interests of the Afghan state. In the current political context, negotiations with the insurgents stand a slim chance of success. Instead, the key to fighting the insurgency and bringing about the conditions for a political settlement lies in improving security, justice and governance and, as previous Crisis Group reports have shown, there are few quick fixes in these areas.

Kabul/Brussels, 28 November 2010

Afghan election commission workers count ballot papers of the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan on 28 September 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace

Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election since 2001 brought perhaps 26 per cent of the electorate to the polls. In this Q&A, Crisis Group consultant Graeme Smith and Senior Analyst Borhan Osman explain the weak participation rate and explore the contest’s implications for the country’s stability.

What happened in Saturday’s Afghan presidential election?

Results will emerge slowly in the 28 September Afghan presidential election – the country’s fourth in its short post-2001 democratic history. Although both leading campaigns have already claimed a first-round victory, official preliminary tallies are not expected to be released until mid-October. Even then, the vote count will be subject to certification, which will come after electoral bodies adjudicate complaints about the process. If the official count shows no candidate gaining more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second round will be required. It is unlikely that a second round could be held until the spring, because winter weather makes voters’ access to polling places too difficult.

The contest features an incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, who enjoys a high degree of control over the state apparatus and a strong likelihood of fending off the dozen challengers seeking to replace him. Ghani’s strongest rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, had become his reluctant partner in a unity government after disputed election results in 2014 led to a political crisis. That crisis ended with a U.S.-brokered power-sharing arrangement.

Election day came after an unusually muted campaign period. Campaigning ahead of previous presidential polls saw contenders charter aircraft, fill stadiums and deliver speeches across the country. In contrast, the 2019 season was relatively quiet, with few rallies, and with candidates who seemed uninterested in spending money or risking lives on large-scale campaigns.

How many people voted?

Turnout was low. Although preliminary results will not be out for weeks, election officials are already estimating that about 2 or 2.5 million voters came to the polls. Those numbers may decrease as some ballots are deemed fraudulent and other votes are thrown out for technical violations. The likely number of final valid votes is hard to forecast because this is the first time Afghanistan has used biometric systems for voter verification in a presidential election. The top end of the current estimated turnout range is 26 per cent of 9.6 million registered voters, a lower turnout than in any other election in Afghanistan – and, in fact, among the weakest turnouts for any national election around the world in recent history. (The largest database of turnouts is maintained by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which contains only a few examples of voters staying away from the polls on such a scale.)

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency.

The turnout figures are likely to be weaker still when considered as a percentage of the eligible electorate. Registration efforts have had disappointing results, capturing only about half of the voting-age population. Approximately half of Afghanistan’s estimated population of about 35 million is eighteen or older and therefore eligible to vote. (Afghanistan has never had a complete census, so these figures are not precise and total population estimates vary by several million.)

Why was participation so low?

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban – who regard the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and therefore see presidential elections as illegitimate – threatened to disrupt the polls violently and pressed their supporters to boycott. After reports of low turnout emerged, the Taliban issued a statement thanking Afghans for shunning a “staged” process. Election authorities kept almost a third of polling centres closed, attributing their decision to security concerns. Voter frustrations with politicians and apathy might have been factors as well.

The Afghan government blamed Taliban violence for keeping Afghans from reaching the polls, and to some extent this may have been the case. A New York Times tally suggested that casualties on election day so far appear to be roughly in keeping with recent daily averages for the war, which ranks as the deadliest armed conflict in the world (measured by people killed directly in fighting). Although there were no mass-casualty incidents, the Afghanistan Analysts Network has so far counted about 400 smaller attacks that appear to reflect a pattern of voter intimidation by the Taliban. A burst of gunfire or a few mortars landing near a polling station appeared to be sufficient in many places to dampen enthusiasm for the process. Although Afghan security forces were deployed in large numbers to secure the voting process, the Taliban probably could have done more both to disrupt the polls and to inflict greater casualties if the group had decided to mount full-throttled attacks on polling sites – along the lines, for example, of the 17 September Taliban suicide attack at a Ghani campaign rally that killed 26 people.

What does the election mean for stability?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing.

Elections are usually a slow burn in Afghanistan, as results trickle out, how well (or not) the electoral bodies performed becomes clearer and politicians size up their opportunities. Street demonstrations or other forms of instability can occur weeks or months after voting. That said, the risk of a serious disruption to Kabul politics appears somewhat lower than in 2014, as Abdullah’s ability to challenge an unfavourable result may be weaker. As in the 2014 election, Abdullah quickly declared himself the winner, flanked by prominent supporters at a 30 September press event. This time around, however, Abdullah was missing his biggest supporter from 2014: the former governor of Balkh province, Atta Noor, a wealthy northern power-broker whose coterie has voiced support for President Ghani in recent days. Ghani himself has not declared victory in public, but one of his senior aides in Kabul told Crisis Group that the Palace is confident of a first-round win, and his running mate, Amrullah Saleh, has said so publicly.

What does the election mean for the peace process?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing, especially in the case of serious contestation over the results. But the key question for now is whether and when the U.S. intends to revive its own efforts to negotiate a settlement of the conflict, and in particular its talks with the Taliban.

The U.S. suspended the peace process in early September when President Donald Trump declined to move ahead with an initial U.S.-Taliban deal aimed at opening the way to broader talks among the Taliban, Afghan government and other Afghan power-brokers. The ball remains in Trump’s court: Taliban officials have told Crisis Group they are still open to resumption of the process. Senior Afghan officials said they would be willing to explore a diplomatic short-cut after the election process is completed, skipping the U.S.-Taliban deal and moving directly to intra-Afghan negotiations – but this has been a longstanding red line for the Taliban, who refuse to negotiate an Afghan political settlement without first resolving with the U.S. the question of foreign troop withdrawal. The Afghan government will be no better able to get the Taliban to erase that red line after the election, even if the announcement of results and reactions to them cause little or no political disturbance. Still, the Afghan government has renewed its commitment, at least rhetorically, to forging ahead with the peace process. On the day after the election, Ghani’s regional peace envoy Omar Daudzai tweeted optimistically that peace would be “accomplished within 2019”.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
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