Looking Beyond the Afghan Vote
Looking Beyond the Afghan Vote
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
Op-Ed / Asia

Looking Beyond the Afghan Vote

With the worst violence in Afghanistan since the start of the war eight years ago, and decades of patronage politics still entrenched in the system, the Afghan people face daunting challenges when they head to the polls Thursday to elect a president.

Because the legitimacy of elections depends on whether Afghans feel safe enough to go out and vote, it is crucial that the security situation in the country is improved. Yet, insecurity and insurgent violence in the Pashtun-majority south and east make it increasingly difficult for people to go to polling places, and also provide a cover for mass fraud. The continued subpar quality of police and the use of police for counterinsurgency fighting are not helping matters, while the stalled disarmament process increases the chances of intimidation across the country. A recently published security map of Afghanistan by the United Nations is not encouraging. It places almost half the country at high risk.

Despite these difficulties, proceeding with the polls remains the best option. Forty candidates for president and more than 3,000 for the provincial councils are evidence of continued interest in the democratic political process. The election is also breaking new ground with more than 17 million people registered to vote. Two women are among the 40 candidates for president.

This progress hasn't come without costs, however. The two female presidential candidates and the 300 women seeking office in local provinces are frequently the target of threats, harassment, and attacks as they strain against ultraconservative interpretations of Islamic law. The men in the race are faring better; President Hamid Karzai could possibly face a second round, with his rivals, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, putting up a tough fight.

It would be unwise to try to predict an election result, but one thing is clear. If these election polls are separate from a coordinated approach to nation-building in Afghanistan, the Afghan people's suffering will be prolonged. It is essential that resources and attention are channeled beyond these elections into strengthening what is necessary for sustainable security: political and electoral institutions.

The enormous international resources and attention currently focused on elections after years of inaction must be used to build Afghan institutions in support of democratic norms. The international community's goal should be substantive technical improvements in the 2010 polls and, more broadly, sustainable and widely accepted Afghan electoral institutions, with far greater support for the representative bodies in the future.

Since the last polls in 2004-2005, both the Afghan government and the international community have failed to embed a robust electoral framework and to drive democratization. Elections mirror wider social trends, and the challenges this week's polls confront reflect the political, security, and institutional developments - and failings - of recent years. Ideally, elections could help improve accountability and equal representation, and reinforce peaceful, democratic opposition; however, the neglect of electoral institutions and planning in recent years is symptomatic of an overall lack of institution-building in Afghanistan.

Renewed domestic and international attention toward Afghanistan must be harnessed to drive strategic planning beyond the 2010 elections. A post-election strategy group of major ministries, donors, civil society representatives, and electoral experts must ensure the creation of a permanent infrastructure and electoral framework. This needs to include ongoing training, oversight, and sufficient funds to retain the thousands of new police recruited to help secure the polls.

However, in the end it is the perception of the Afghan population that will measure electoral success. If Afghans are to be encouraged to vote, they must have the security to go out and cast their ballot and they must be confident that their votes will count. An election that is perceived as illegitimate could be the flashpoint for further destabilization of an already fragile state.

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.