icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
Briefing 117 / Asia

Afghanistan’s Elections Stalemate

The prolonged crisis over Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections has substantially weakened President Hamid Karzai’s government and could, if left unaddressed, drive disenfranchised Afghans into the arms of the Taliban, stoke ethnic tensions and increase the risks of civil war.

I. Overview

The prolonged crisis over Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections has further undermined President Hamid Karzai’s credibility. He is now even more isolated politically than he was after his dubious re-election in 2009. The Wolesi Jirga was inaugurated on 26 January 2011, following a lengthy standoff that exposed sharp political fault lines, which could plunge the country deeper into not just political but armed conflict. Clashes between the executive, legislature and judiciary over the results of the polls are paralysing government and weakening already fragile institutions. Constitutional review is long overdue, and failure to implement changes that reinforce the separation of powers will only further weaken the state’s ability to provide security or good governance. If public confidence is to be restored, the president and Supreme Court must disband a special tribunal that was created to adjudicate elections complaints but lacks a clear legal mandate. The new parliament must also immediately place electoral and constitutional reform at the top of its agenda. If left unaddressed, the current political crisis will stoke ethnic tensions and could drive disenfranchised Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.

By the time Karzai returned to office on 19 November 2009, the destabilising effect of the flaws in the electoral system was readily apparent. Nonetheless, in the haste to push ahead with an ill-conceived agenda of putting an “Afghan face” on the transition process, international stakeholders, in particular the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), allowed Karzai to hijack the debate inside and outside parliament over electoral reform and to manipulate the political process. By insisting that the 18 September 2010 Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the National Assembly) elections go forward, they backed Karzai’s ill-considered wager that an irrational system could somehow produce rational results.

The president’s 18 February 2010 decree on the electoral law was one of many unheeded signs that the parliamentary polls would likely end in disaster if not postponed. The decree sharply limited the authority of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), increased ambiguity over the role of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and created confusion over candidates’ right of appeal in the event of disqualification. In a rare show of unity, the Wolesi Jirga rejected the decree on 31 March. Karzai, however, bypassed the lower house, ensuring that the Meshrano Jirga (the upper house) essentially endorse the decree by voting to take no action on the issue on 3 April. Meanwhile, vetting processes designed to keep known criminals and members of armed groups off the ballot broke down, raising the risk of candidate rivalries turning violent. The Wolesi Jirga elections were thus held against a backdrop of heightened political tensions and deteriorating security.

Absent electoral reform, the result was unsurprisingly a repeat of previous election debacles. As in the August 2009 presidential and provincial council polls, violence and insecurity created tremendous obstacles for both candidates and voters. Election day violence hit record highs, leaving at least 24 dead. Insecurity left wide swathes of the population unable or unwilling to vote, particularly in regions where the insurgency has spiked, with many disenfranchised after the last minute closure of hundreds of polling stations. Systemic fraud, including intimidation and ballot stuffing, was witnessed countrywide, resulting in the IEC ultimately throwing out 1.3 million ballots, an estimated quarter of total votes cast. The ECC subsequently disqualified 21 winning candidates for electoral fraud, prompting losing candidates – many from Karzai’s Pashtun political base – to hold street protests and to press their case through back channels at the presidential palace.

Karzai’s politically calculated capitulation to the demands of losing candidates prompted a criminal inquiry into the conduct of the polls. Days after the preliminary results were announced on 20 October, the attorney general filed a broad indictment against more than a dozen senior elections officials and also against dozens of parliamentary candidates, after receiving information from the ECC about suspected fraud involving hundreds of candidates. The Supreme Court appointed a special tribunal on elections in late December. Tasked with investigating electoral fraud and corruption, the tribunal claimed it was empowered to annul the elections. The newly established Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution (ICSIC), reportedly in correspondence with the president, rejected this presumption but never publicly announced its position. With the commission’s role as an arbiter of constitutional disputes still unclear, the president was free to seek other, more favourable interpretations of the special tribunal’s authority.

On 19 January 2011, at the tribunal’s request, Karzai announced that he would delay parliament’s inauguration by a little more than a month. The tribunal said it needed time to adjudicate electoral fraud complaints. Angered by the delay, more than 200 newly elected parliamentarians announced the next day that they would defy the president’s order and inaugurate parliament with or without him. Ultimately caving to strong international pressure, Karzai inaugurated the parliament on 26 January, but continues to abuse his authority by retaining the special tribunal. Although the tribunal has initiated recounts in several provinces, IEC officials announced on 21 February that they would not cooperate with the process. The dispute between the executive and the electoral institutions runs the risk of escalating violence at the local level at a time when ethnic tensions have never been higher.

The outlook for resolving the crisis, absent meaningful electoral and constitutional reform, does not look promising. It is unlikely that Karzai’s opposition will accept the special tribunal’s judgments. Nor will the dubiously elected parliament be viewed as legitimate. Karzai could be tempted to use the tribunal against his opponents, in a bid to bend the National Assembly to his will. As this briefing was published, fourteen election officials had been indicted along with dozens of sitting members of parliament. With the lower house also deeply divided over the selection of the speaker, Afghanistan’s government is in a state of near paralysis. The Wolesi Jirga’s call, in a resolution passed on 12 February, for the president and Supreme Court to dissolve the special tribunal, has increased the risk of an escalated clash between the three branches of government.

The international community and Afghan leaders must recognise the gravity of the current impasse. Karzai must heed parliament’s call to disband the special tribunal. The Afghan government as a whole must move swiftly to mend fragile institutions, to initiate substantial electoral reform and to adopt constitutional amendments to strengthen the checks and balances between the executive, legislature and judiciary. Provincial and district-level government institutions must be empowered to deliver services to the Afghan people. The president and parliament, with the support of the international community, should:

  • dissolve the special elections tribunal immediately and refer election-related criminal charges to the primary courts in the original jurisdictions in which they were allegedly committed;
  • convene a loya jirga for constitutional reform that reinforces the separation of powers by enhancing the independence of the judiciary and legislature; reducing the executive’s ability to resort to rule by decree; and strengthening provincial and district level governance through greater devolution of administrative and political authority;
  • pass legislation clarifying the role of the Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution and fully defining its competence and authority in relation to the Supreme Court; and
  • repeal the 18 February 2010 presidential decree on the electoral law and enact wide-reaching electoral reforms to broaden political participation, including by rationalising the elections calendar; removing barriers to political party participation; reducing opportunities for fraud by implementing district delimitation and cleaning up the voter registry; clarifying the authorities of the electoral commissions; and standing up a permanent electoral complaints commission.

Kabul/Brussels, 23 February 2011

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
and_huh_what