international analysis and commentary

The Afghan Election: The Critical Search for Legitimacy


Reactions to Afghanistan’s presidential election have ranged from insurgent assertions of failure, to claims of success by some international officials. The election was not a failure since millions turned out to defy insurgent threats and exercise their constitutional right. Nor was it a success since not all were able to vote and significant fraud was reported.

Taking into account the difficult circumstances and challenging conditions under which the election was held, one can conclude that despite significant flaws it was generally adequate. However, the use of the word “success” in Afghanistan must be avoided since it creates high expectations that when not realized lead to further cynicism and disillusionment, thus eroding the credibility of the government and the international mission.

There will be many lessons from the current election as more information about the actual process is disclosed. Failure to learn, absorb and apply them to the 2010 parliamentary elections, or a potential second-round presidential election, could lead to further deterioration of the status quo.

The internationally administered Afghan presidential election of 2004 recorded 70% voter participation. The 2005 parliamentary election drew far less enthusiasm with a 50% turnout. Participation in the current election is estimated at between 40% and 50%.

When compared to the 2004 election, the numbers drop significantly. However, when matched against the 2005 vote, the reduction is not particularly considerable. Unlike 2004, the current election is an Afghan-administered process with international supervision, albeit within an extensively deteriorated security environment.

A second-round vote would be a huge blow for President Hamid Karzai. Though he is likely to win a final vote, it would further weaken him politically. Any second-round vote would force Mr. Karzai to cut more deals and concede more political capital, particularly with elements of questionable repute.

Voter participation was lowest in Afghanistan’s war-torn south and east where intimidation and threats prevailed. These majority-Pashto regions heavily impact Mr. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun whose origins and political base lie in the critical southern region of Kandahar, which is also the traditional heartland of the Taliban.

A victory by the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, could lead to greater political division and fragmentation. Although an ethnically mixed Tajik-Pashtun, he is widely considered by most as Tajik. The Pashtun majority would find it difficult to accept him, further strengthening the hand of the insurgents to the detriment of the central government and broader international mission.

Meaning of the Election
Most election-related discussion ends with a cynical question: What was the purpose of holding an election if incumbent President Hamid Karzai’s victory was sealed long ago?

The election represents only part of a critical and lengthy evolutionary process of Afghanistan’s transformation that requires Afghans, with the help of effective international assistance, to take ownership of their own future. This process involves both the short-term realities and long-term challenges that ordinary Afghans confront. It goes beyond the headlines of bombings and body counts overwhelming global audiences, particularly for ordinary Afghans who struggle daily just to obtain the most basic services. This process involves everything ranging from the building of roads to critical government institutions. It involves reaching certain milestones, however imperfect, including elections.

Since Afghan politics are more personality-driven than party-based, President Hamid Karzai’s strategy is to secure considerable support for a sizeable presidential majority and to consolidate a political base for the 2010 parliamentary elections. What may matter most for the overall evolution of the country is the emergence of an effective and organized political opposition. This further underscores the importance of the current election in preparation for 2010 and the need for the international community to remain even more engaged in Afghanistan’s political dynamics. When judging this process, international expectations about Afghanistan’s future must not defy the confines of reality. Possessing a Western-style parliamentary system does not mean Afghanistan shares, or will ever share, a Western-style political culture. The rhetoric employed, the issues discussed and the tone of debate that often dominates Afghan political discourse simply shock many in the West. This further contributes to the prevailing uncertainty in international circles on Afghanistan’s political future.

After three decades of turbulent conflict, Afghanistan remains a deeply traditional society. These traditions can provide a stronger sense of identity and secure point of reference and comfort. The deep physical and psychological dislocation resulting from war regularly enforces the need for many to cling on even more fiercely to their traditions, and can often assume more radical interpretations and harmful consequences.

Afghanistan’s political evolution is a multi-generational process that involves the gradual creation of a new national narrative and a broader sense of collective purpose. Ultimately, it must be an Afghan-driven process that requires responsible leadership.

The Road Ahead
There is no short-term solution to the situation in Afghanistan. This can be difficult to grasp for Western media and audiences accustomed to quick-fix solutions.

Afghanistan presents a far greater and more complex challenge than originally anticipated. As time has passed, this complexity has grown. To a significant extent, this is because since 2001 Afghanistan has been a mission pursued on the cheap. The required resources, both human and material, that should have been committed were not. And much of what was committed was done very inefficiently, particularly on the aid front.

Furthermore, the appropriate number of troops was not sent. In addition, the number of military trainers required to build up Afghan security forces was not assigned. Therefore, the mission is well behind the curve. That’s not to say that the situation is lost, as many at the highest levels have concluded. Despite these shortcomings, extraordinary work is being done on the ground by military and civilian personnel. However, much of it remains a patchwork that must be streamlined and structured into a more coherent framework.

The trendy talk in US foreign policy circles has become whether Afghanistan is a war of choice or necessity. Unfortunately, the Iraq-centric terms of debate continue to overshadow Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the choice was imposed by the United States and the decision was made to pursue the mission with the agreement of allies. What’s at stake goes beyond basic necessity and rhetorical battles fought on the op-ed pages. It goes to the core of American national interest and international security and stability.

For ordinary Afghans there is still hope. The question is whether the international community has the appetite or will to sustain the effort long-term. Ultimately, this remains one of the single greatest challenges in Afghanistan.