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There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
Report 171 / Asia

Afghanistan’s Election Challenges

Afghanistan’s forthcoming elections, with presidential and provincial council polls on 20 August 2009, and National Assembly and district elections scheduled for 2010, present a formidable challenge if they are to produce widely accepted and credible results.

 

Executive Summary

Afghanistan’s forthcoming elections, with presidential and provincial council polls on 20 August 2009, and National Assembly and district elections scheduled for 2010, present a formidable challenge if they are to produce widely accepted and credible results. The weakness of state institutions, the deteriorating security situation and the fractured political scene are all highlighted by – and will likely have a dramatic effect on – the electoral process. The years since the last poll saw the Afghan government and international community fail to embed a robust electoral framework and drive democratisation at all levels. This has made holding truly meaningful elections much more difficult. Rather than once again running the polls merely as distinct events, the enormous resources and attention focused on the elections should be channelled into strengthening political and electoral institutions, as a key part of the state-building efforts required to produce a stable country.

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The first round of post-Taliban elections in 2004 and 2005 were joint United Nations-Afghan efforts. This time they will be conducted under the sole stewardship of the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) with the UN acting only in support. Preparations face a series of intertwined challenges:

  • Technical. The momentum of the last elections was lost in 2006-2007. The Afghan government, UN and donors failed to use the interim period to build the capacity and resources of the IEC; strengthen the legal framework including replacing the inappropriate Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system; and produce a sustainable voter registry. Further, failure and delays in wider institutional processes such as disarmament programs and judicial and police reform have increased popular disillusionment and thus reduced buy-in for the state-building agenda, including potentially election participation.
     
  • Political. The presidential elections in particular expose a highly centralised political patronage system in which the head of state wields enormous powers, bringing personalities rather than policies to the fore. The poor relationship between the branches of the state sees the new legislature ignored or overruled and its effectiveness greatly reduced by the absence of a formal role for political parties. The lack of an accepted constitutional arbiter in case of dispute means that even simple technical electoral processes have become highly charged political contests.
     
  • Security. The insurgency, centred in the south and east of the country, may affect the ability of people in such areas to freely exercise their franchise and makes scrutiny of the process much more difficult, increasing opportunities for fraud. This may have wider implications for overall legitimacy given that the violence is centred in areas dominated by one ethnic group, the Pashtuns. The failings of disarmament programs due to lack of political will also increases the chances of intimidation across the country. The continued low quality of police makes providing security for elections challenging.

Proceeding with the polls is however widely recognised to be the least bad option. There are 41 candidates running in the presidential poll – most prominent in challenging Hamid Karzai are former foreign minister and leading Northern Alliance personality Abdullah Abdullah and former World Bank official and finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. The large number of candidates – about 3,300 (10 per cent of them women) – for the provincial councils provides ample evidence of continued interest in the process. The challenge now is to ensure credible and widely accepted results that promote stability. 

Participation is likely to be uneven with a drop in candidates in areas of the insurgency-hit south in particular, a stark reminder of the effect of violence. Expectations must not be inflated, but on the other hand the bar must not simply be lowered if there is to be faith in the result. The voter registration update, while adding some momentum to the process, failed to address striking flaws in the voter registry which could lay the groundwork for fraud and which the international community has not spoken up about. Much greater political will than in 2005 is needed in tackling powerful players who flout the rules. Ultimately what will matter in judging the success of the elections is the perception of the Afghan public.

In the short time remaining before the 2009 polls, the focus must be on strengthening security provision and the impartiality, integrity and professionalism of electoral staff – the front line against fraud. The lessons learned must be used to ensure a much strengthened process in 2010. The expense of the current exercise is unsustainable and highlights the failure after the 2005 polls to build Afghan institutions and create a more realistic electoral framework. There must also be well-sequenced post-election planning including ongoing training and oversight and sufficient funds to retain the thousands of new police recruited to help secure the polls.

More broadly there needs to be a focus on building consensus on how the Afghan political system can be made more functional and representative, ending the current over-reliance on a largely unaccountable executive that has encouraged an ever-growing culture of impunity. Weakness in institutional development has only fuelled wider instability through exclusion and a lack of government services. There must be broad agreement, even within the bounds of the current constitution, on a balance of power among the branches of the state and between the central and local government; on identifying which body is the ultimate constitutional arbiter; and ensuring a more appropriate role for political parties. Embedding democratic norms and building institutions will better ensure that the Afghan state is representative, sustainable and ultimately stable. 

Kabul/Brussels, 24 June 2009 

Op-Ed / Asia

There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Washington’s latest idea of a transitional government would be worse than the dysfunctional status quo.

If there is one thing the United States should have learned after two decades in Afghanistan, it’s that there are no quick fixes. That has proved true for the war, and it’s true for any possibility of a negotiated peace. But faced with the decision whether to comply with a May 1 deadline for pulling out all troops under a deal the U.S. government signed with the Taliban in February 2020, Washington is now searching for a shortcut to an Afghan political settlement. There isn’t one.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has delivered to the Afghan government and Taliban a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement—the central idea of which is replacing the elected Afghan government with a so-called transitional one that would include the Taliban and then negotiate among its members the future permanent system of government. Crucial blank spaces in the draft include the exact share of power for each of the warring sides and which side would control security institutions.

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a letter that soon leaked, saying it was “urgent” to “accelerate peace talks” and move “quickly toward a settlement.” The letter states that the United States has asked Turkey to host a high-level meeting between the Afghan sides “in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter also references a U.S.-proposed 90-day reduction in violence (a concept short of a cease-fire) while diplomacy continues—which suggests that Washington knows an agreement within weeks is unlikely.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

For the Taliban, the draft has too many hallmarks of the existing government setup: It includes a commitment to holding elections and keeping in place the constitution devised under U.S. auspices in 2004 until a new one is written. The available evidence of Taliban thinking points to their rejecting any arrangement that would make them appear co-opted into a system they have long opposed in exchange for a partial share of power.

For Ghani, the proposal is premised on him relinquishing power. That brutal fact, plus the rough-edged tone of Blinken’s letter, has whipped up a political tempest in Kabul. Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reacted most bluntly, saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.” Ghani knows that the main Afghan enthusiasts of the transitional government idea are his political opposition and the country’s former mujahideen, who sense opportunity to gain power as it is parceled out.

In the unlikely event the new U.S. peace plan materializes, the power-sharing arrangement it envisions would be prone to collapse. A body comprising multiple factions plus the Taliban—at a stage of the peace process before they’ve even begun to hash out core issues that divide them—would be less functional and less stable than the fragile government in place now. The hard work of negotiating the structure of a future Afghan state will not be eased by prematurely erasing the current one. And if a fractious transitional government fails, the cease-fire the U.S. plan promises would evaporate with it.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani. The Afghan leader’s critics have accused him of obstructing a peace process that has sapped his government of its already tenuous authority. The past several Afghan elections have been bitterly contested, the country’s politics are deeply corrupt, and service provision is increasingly limited to population centers, with the Taliban insurgency operating freely throughout much of the countryside.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani.

But however much Ghani has contributed to slowing the process, dismantling the elected government is unlikely to hasten peace. The Taliban have not moved any faster. It took over a year of bilateral negotiations and numerous U.S. concessions for the Taliban to sign a four-page agreement spelling out a tight timeline for U.S. and NATO withdrawal and more ambiguous Taliban promises to prevent Afghanistan being used as a launching pad for terrorists. And the Taliban remain coy about details of the political vision they seek to realize. Official Taliban statements that their movement will accept some degree of power sharing are contradicted by internal messaging emphasizing victory and ascendance.

After delays for which the United States was as much to blame as any other party, Afghan talks finally commenced last September in Doha, Qatar. They’ve progressed haltingly, at least in part because the parties are waiting for a new U.S. government to signal whether it will stay committed to a process the previous one catalyzed.

The slow pace now clashes with the deadline for withdrawing foreign troops. That’s a problem the U.S.-Taliban deal caused by decoupling the withdrawal timetable from any requirement of progress in negotiations. But it’s also a problem that can’t be solved by demands to speed up the hard slog of reaching a political settlement.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun. Instead of promoting a new plan that has almost no chance of being accepted and that would further weaken the Afghan state, Washington should put its energy into testing whether the Doha process can be made to work.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun.

This should include rallying the regional powers, especially Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India—who all have links to actors in the Afghan conflict—around generating momentum for the existing process. A high-level meeting of this group, which Washington has asked the United Nations to convene, is a good idea, but these stakeholders need a better peace plan to coalesce around than the new U.S. proposal.

If the United States wants to give the talks a real chance, then it will need to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1 to maintain leverage for forging a settlement and to forestall a downward security spiral that would spike the process.

Ongoing talks would provide the best argument Washington could make to regional powers, especially Pakistan, for why they should help pressure the Taliban to let the deadline slip.

But if talks break down—as they probably will, given how divided the parties are and how rarely peace processes succeed—then it will be better to have even a dysfunctional Afghan government still standing than to have replaced it with a stopgap transitional one whose existence would not survive the end of negotiations. And if the Biden administration plans to pull out U.S. forces soon, then it’s better not to risk leaving such wreckage behind.

Contributors

Program Director, Asia
LaurelMillerICG
Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
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