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
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

Mary Akrami, Laila Jafari, and Fawzia Koofi attend the Intra Afghan Dialogue talks in Doha on July 7, 2019. KARIM JAAFAR / AFP
Briefing Note / Asia

What Will Peace Talks Bode for Afghan Women?

This is the third in a series of three briefing notes that discuss and analyse the nascent peace process in Afghanistan while focusing on frequently raised questions.

On 29 February, the Taliban and the U.S. signed an agreement that commits the U.S. to a fourteen-month phased withdrawal of military forces in exchange for Taliban commitments to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe harbour for terrorists. The agreement also obligates the Taliban to commence peace negotiations with the Afghan government and other Afghan power brokers. This breakthrough comes after a decade of on-and-off U.S. and other efforts to catalyse a peace process, throughout which many have raised serious concerns about the risk that legitimising the Taliban and returning them to some degree of political power in Afghanistan would subject Afghan women once again to forms of oppression and exclusion that they endured during Taliban rule in the 1990s.

Afghan Women and Peace with the Taliban

Negotiating an end to the war in Afghanistan will require compromises. But which compromises? What might be sacrificed? Does making a deal with a conservative religious movement mean selling out human rights, including women’s rights? CRISISGROUP

Would a peace process jeopardise women’s rights?

As with other topics for negotiation, neither side is in a strong enough position in the conflict to dictate its stance on women’s rights in a political settlement.

The short answer is yes. The Taliban have views about women’s rights and status that are different from those of the Afghan government’s current leadership, so any agreement that gives the Taliban a share of power in Kabul will probably result in some degree of degradation in how women’s rights are defined and protected. Difficult talks on this issue should be anticipated as part of intra-Afghan negotiations that bring together the warring parties. As with other topics for negotiation, neither side is in a strong enough position in the conflict to dictate its stance on women’s rights in a political settlement. It is plausible that a negotiated outcome on issues affecting women would reflect the middle ground between the Taliban and those who will advocate for preserving existing protections or would be vague enough to permit differing interpretations.

The Taliban do not, however, seem to have fully formed positions about how precisely they would approach women’s rights if they return to government. On the one hand, Taliban officials have consistently told Crisis Group (and others) that they do not seek a return to the past and would not try to reimpose the rules enforced by their former Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. A Taliban official said, “Many negative things within the Taliban definitely need reforming, such as the rigid rules”. On the other hand, the Taliban have avoided specifying which of their old rules could be relaxed and which parts of the current legal order they consider un-Islamic by their strict interpretations.

Occasionally the Taliban have expressed views on some specific limitations on women’s roles; during a 2019 intra-Afghan dialogue, for instance, one Taliban representative reportedly told a female participant that a woman could be prime minister of a future Afghan government but not president or a judge. Nevertheless, the Taliban overall have projected an ambiguous posture on women’s issues. They have said women should continue to enjoy rights to education and work so long as those rights are consistent with Islamic law and Afghan culture, without spelling out how such restrictions would limit women’s rights compared with the status quo. Based on Crisis Group discussions with Taliban figures at various levels of seniority, this posture is not only a bargaining tactic on the insurgents’ part; rather, it also appears to reflect a lack of well-defined Taliban policy.

Whatever deal emerges from negotiations among Afghans may be constrained somewhat by the fact that their country remains dependent on foreign aid, including from donor governments that will prioritise enduring protection of women’s rights. The Afghan government collects only $2.5 billion per year in revenue while spending $11 billion, and its expenses are projected to remain at similar levels in the coming years. In discussions with Crisis Group, Taliban officials have expressed hope of negotiating peace in a way that avoids a disastrous aid cutoff, but it remains unclear if they could or would meet donor requirements on gender and other rights and governance issues.

Shaharzad Akbar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, told Crisis Group that peace will require compromise on both sides. She noted that the Taliban will face pressure at the negotiating table to offer assurances on issues such as women’s and minority rights as well as freedom of speech; conversely, she predicted, the other side in the negotiations may need to concede some fundamental changes in the nature of the Afghan state and constitutional order. “Everything will be on the table”, she predicted.

Neither side will enjoy control over the process and questions about women’s rights will likely be the subject of tough negotiations.
Afghan women listen to a speech delivered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai during an event marking International Literacy Day in Kabul September 28, 2010. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Despite the evident risks, the specific outcome of a peace process on women’s rights and related issues cannot be precisely forecast. Neither side will enjoy control over the process and questions about women’s rights will likely be the subject of tough negotiations. Negotiations will take place under the influence of strong advocacy for women’s rights on the part of some participants as well as some groups and individuals outside the circle of negotiators. The danger that compromise language in a peace accord could be vague and that real determination of women’s status and opportunities might be left to the vagaries of implementation means that those who support strong protection of women’s rights will need to negotiate every possible advantage at the peace table itself.

Since 2002, Afghanistan has seen historic advancement of women’s rights, freedoms and achievements – for some. These advances, as Human Rights Watch puts it, are still “partial and fragile”, and women even in government-controlled areas of the country continue to fight for implementation of their legally guaranteed rights. Such guarantees will be debated at the negotiating table, potentially resetting Afghan women’s political struggle. But the social advancements born of this struggle over the past eighteen years cannot be so easily undone by the intra-Afghan talks. A peaceful end to Afghanistan’s conflict could enable this struggle – which would be sure to continue after any negotiated settlement is reached – to extend more broadly throughout the country, including to more women who have lived under the Taliban’s insurgency.

What is at risk for Afghan women?

Many women benefited significantly from the freedoms and opportunities they gained after 2001, especially in cities. Improved access to health care more than halved the number of women dying in childbirth. After being largely excluded from public life under the Taliban, women now hold 27 per cent of civil service jobs and quotas have brought a substantial number of women into parliament. Relatively few women had formal schooling under the Taliban, whereas now 100,000 women attend university and 3.5 million girls are enrolled in school.

The benefits have not been entirely limited to government-controlled areas. Many of those 3.5 million girls attend classes in Taliban-controlled parts of the country. The Taliban’s earlier dictates forbade instruction on “Muslim women’s improper liberation”, but in the last ten years the Taliban have adopted and enforced a formal policy endorsing girls’ education. In practice, girls’ education often stops at puberty in Taliban territory, though the Taliban’s strict edicts have given way in many respects to prevailing local norms.

It is important to note that Afghan women have complex and mixed views of the Taliban and its record. During the 1990s, the Taliban sought to impose one of the most severe regimes of gender segregation anywhere in the world, banning women from leaving homes without a male chaperone, limiting girls’ access to education, imposing a strict dress code, and inflicting harsh punishments like stoning that nearly all Muslim-majority countries upholding some form of Islamic law have dispensed with.

Nevertheless, some women do not regard the Taliban as enemies, although it is difficult to ascertain how many given that as much as 76 per cent of the country’s women are estimated to live in rural areas, a population that lacks the same platforms for expression as educated urban Afghans and is less accessible to researchers and journalists. Some Afghan women credited the Taliban with imposing order in the mid-1990s and reducing the widespread sexual and gender-based violence of the preceding civil wars. Moreover, an unknown number of women have supported the Taliban – sometimes actively, in roles as spies, smugglers, couriers, medics, logisticians and recruiters – though it is difficult to gauge how much choice women have had in offering this support.

Some women living in Taliban-controlled areas today, when it is possible to research their views, continue to credit the group for providing security. But even some who appreciate the Taliban’s imposition of order condemn the group for its effective banishment of women from public life and its stark diminishment of women’s legal status.

Some Afghan women are voicing fears that the negotiations may result in restoration of the Taliban’s old rules from the 1990s.

Now that the peace process has raised the prospect of Taliban returning to some degree of national power, some Afghan women are voicing fears that the negotiations may result in restoration of the Taliban’s old rules from the 1990s. Other Afghan women have countered that the country’s war-torn status quo is unacceptable and that talking to the Taliban is the only way to achieve a desperately needed peace.

What might Afghan women gain from the peace process?

Afghan women’s views about the potential gains from a peace process cover a spectrum of opinion. Urban women tend to be most sceptical about the Taliban entering into mainstream politics. Rural women with whom Crisis Group spoke in recent months often expressed a different view.

During recent Crisis Group interviews in Kandahar province, rural women spoke with urgency about ending the bloodshed, which is greater in rural than in urban areas. After losing so many relatives in the war, one said, rural women feel impatient for the Taliban to reclaim a share of government power, even if that means a return of conservative religious rules. Living under the Taliban insurgency, for many, has also meant economic deprivation and inequality of aid delivery. At the same time, she expressed hope that the Taliban would relax some of the edicts they imposed in the 1990s, such as the requirement that women should be chaperoned in public. Several rural women said they want their daughters to be educated, unlike their mothers and grandmothers. But ultimately, for many women, what is paramount is freedom from the war that has left so many as widows, mourning mothers and with lives molded by conflict. “Freedom for us means an end to the war, an end to our children and husbands dying”, said a woman from a village north of Kandahar city. Another female villager emphasised to Crisis Group: “Peace is the first thing”.