BACKGROUND: Some seven million votes were cast for one of the 11 men on the April 5 ballot, yielding a respectable 60 percent turnout. Of those votes cast, 36 percent were by women and 64 percent by men. The two frontrunners, Abdullah Abdullah, who received the most votes, and Ashraf Ghani are headed for a runoff next month. The results confirm Afghanistan’s status as a functioning electoral democracy in which multiple candidates compete for the highest offices in elections whose outcome cannot be predicted in advance.
Yet, ethnicity could play a more delicate role in the current voting than in 2009. The absence of strong political parties leads Afghans to vote on the basis of ethnicity (Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks are the four largest groups). Although Abdullah is half Pashtun, he is commonly seen as an ethnic Tajik leader from the north. The Pashtuns, who divided their vote in the first round, comprise 43 percent of Afghanistan’s population. They will likely rally behind Ghani, perhaps enough for him to overcome his second-place finish in the first-round ballot. If he loses, more Pashtuns might support the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. If Afghanistan’s national minorities and other interest groups feel they lack legitimate opportunities to express their views through the political process, they will more likely take up arms against the government or stand aloof as the country descends again into civil war.
Whatever the outcome, a critical issue is whether the losing candidate will accept the results with grace or challenge them as fraudulent. Since avoiding shame is important in Afghan culture, the losers have an incentive to claim fraud as the reason for their defeat. Even before this year’s ballot, Abdullah had called fraud his main opponent. His claim that fraud cheated him of victory in his 2009 race against incumbent President Hamid Karzai marred Karzai’s second term in office.
Unlike in 2009, on this occasion the members of the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) have been selected by civil society groups and others rather than being all Karzai’s men. Karzai either limited his efforts to manipulate the results this time or was ineffective in doing so. Whatever fraud occurred in April appears to have little impact on the outcome, since Abdullah and Ghani received many more votes than the other candidates but fell well short of a majority. Still, the eventual winner would be wise to offer losers government posts or other concessions to keep them satisfied.
There are already fears that neither man will prove strong enough to govern the country effectively in the face of powerful regional warlords. Abdullah has even called for reforming the political system to give more power to regional and local officials. Afghanistan’s constitution gives the president considerable powers, including authority to appoint most national and even local officials. Karzai was originally chosen with expectations that he would be a weak president that would not establish the power centers, but he soon grew in office. It seems likely that, if elected, Abdullah would break from his rhetoric and exploit his powers to the fullest.
IMPLICATIONS: One hoped for result of next month’s final round of voting is that the both presidential frontrunners have said that they will quickly sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S.. For reasons really know only to him, Karzai has declined to sign the negotiated text. The U.S. needs the BSA, effectively a status-of-forces agreement, in order for the Pentagon and its NATO partners to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year. Meanwhile, the Obama administration still has not announced how many U.S. troops it intends to keep in Afghanistan after 2014 if the BSA takes effect. The resulting uncertainty is deepening Afghan fears of abandonment, encouraging the Taliban to wait to see if the ANSF will lack any direct foreign combat support, and making it harder to induce fence-sitting third parties like Pakistan to side with Afghanistan’s new government and armed forces.
Another uncertainty is how the Russia-West split over Ukraine will affect regional security dynamics. On the one hand, neither NATO nor Russia want to see the Taliban return to power. On the other, Russia might retaliate for Western sanctions by reducing its support for NATO’s Afghan mission. For now, Moscow has found common cause with Karzai, who is also alienated from the Western powers. Karzai’s government was one of the few that backed Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea. Russia has also recently reached a deal with India under which New Delhi would pay Russia to provide Kabul’s government with weapons, allowing both countries to exert greater influence on the Afghan war despite their shared refusal to send combat troops to Afghanistan.
The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) performed better than expected in maintaining Election Day security. Doing so again in June, during the second ballot, could prove more difficult since the Taliban, while harboring its strength in the hopes of seeing the departure of most if not all foreign troops, will made a greater effort to disrupt the ballot. The layered security concept, which looks good on paper, has yet to prove its value in practice.
As confirmed by the most recent semi-annual Report of Security and Stability in Afghanistan. The ANSF still suffers from serious weaknesses in such critical enablers as maintenance, logistics, air support, and intelligence. One reason NATO wants to keep some 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after this year is to fill these gaps through additional training, equipping, and advising. With its new Resolute Support Operation, NATO would transition from providing direct combat support, and more recently unit-based security force assistance, to assistance concentrated in several basic functions. NATO personnel would also work with the main Afghan government security ministries to improve their managerial procedures.
Afghanistan’s current “Decade of Transformation” envisages moving the country from corruption and dependency to societal renewal and economic integration and prosperity. In its Tokyo Mutual Accountability Commitments, the Afghan government pledged to conduct free elections, advance human (especially women) rights, combat corruption, and expand private sector-led growth while reducing national dependence on foreign assistance. Afghanistan experienced exceptionally rapid GDP growth last year but that was partly due to good weather leading to a good harvest. This year could see a sharp drop due to the ongoing withdrawal of foreign troops and aid workers. International aid levels are falling rapidly, as they have in earlier conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere when the foreign military presence was sharply curtailed. Years of wasted and misused aid are also making it hard to persuade donors that need to spend more now to avoid paying badly later. Congress looks like it might authorize only half of the US$ 2.1 billion in aid that the Obama admonition originally requested. Developing Afghanistan’s natural riches requires achieving greater integration with the rest of Central and South Asia, but for this to happen Afghanistan needs improved security and a better business climate – lower corruption, more transparency, improved regulations, and so forth – to attract more foreign capital and entrepreneurs. The resurgent drug trade exacerbates these problems.
CONCLUSIONS: Thus far Afghanistan looks to be holding elections sufficiently free and fair to produce a government that has enough domestic authority to mobilize the Afghan nation against the Taliban and sufficient international legitimacy to continue receiving vital economic and security assistance. Political reality means that Western governments would find it harder to sustain their high level of support to Afghanistan if the country experienced yet another flawed election. Nevertheless, the new Afghan government and its partners still need to overcome critical security, economic, and diplomatic challenges to finally turn the tide on Eurasia’s longest twenty-first century conflict
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.
(Image Attribution: United States Armed Force)