Can Afghan Voters Save Their Nation?

On Saturday, Afghans will head to the polls for their fourth election in six years. Slightly more than 2,500 candidates, including 406 women, will contest 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, Afghanistan's lower house of parliament. The election is a test of credibility for Pres. Hamid Karzai, who is embroiled in a string of governance and corruption scandals and who seeks to restore legitimacy after last year's fraud-marred presidential poll. The Obama administration also hopes the poll will help strengthen Afghanistan's democratic transition and political stability. That would enable the approximately 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to begin withdrawal in July 2011, holding true to the timeline announced by President Obama at West Point in December 2009. Increasingly, however, this timeline appears to be wishful thinking. Rising violence and widespread fraud threaten the election and the stability of the country.

Violence has increased over the past year. Last month saw 1,350 insurgent attacks, more than double the figure for the same period the previous year. Human Rights Watch has warned that the Afghan government's failure to provide security could compromise the poll. Over 1,000 of the 6,835 polling centers--about 15 percent--will not open because of poor security, depriving up to one million mainly rural Pashtuns in the south and east of their votes. The United Nations has evacuated a third of its international staff amid fears that the election will be marred by fraud and violence.

While a legitimate election would help consolidate Afghanistan's stability and fledgling democracy, if the vote is marred by violence and significant fraud, it will have enormous ramifications for Afghanistan and the United States.

The violence is no longer confined to the south. The Taliban has a significant presence in 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Many districts in the northern provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan are now under the Taliban's de facto control. Nangarhar, once hailed as the most peaceful province in eastern Afghanistan, has seen a rising number of assassinations and terrorist attacks, forcing election officials to shut down 80 polling centers. In Ghazni, officials say voting will be impossible in at least four districts. The Taliban, who reject the election as a "foreign process," have warned the locals they will cut off the fingers of anyone found with a voter-registration card. "We urge people not to participate in the election. Everything and everyone affiliated with the election is our target--candidates, security forces, campaigners, election workers, voters are all our targets," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Agence France-Presse.

Security is not the only concern. The latest reports on fraud indicate this weekend's polls could be as messy as last year's election. Despite the Independent Election Committee's efforts to reduce fraud, the electoral-register system is still faulty: Perhaps 5 million of its 17 million registered voters are either fraudulent or duplicated. Thousands of fake voter cards--some reports claim up to three million--have been printed in Pakistan and distributed in Afghan villages. Moreover, the Independent Election Complaints Commission, which annulled over one million votes last year, has become less independent. Karzai has taken control of the watchdog, sidelining the United Nations and appointing all five commissioners himself. The Telegraph reported that election workers had been offered up to $500,000 to falsify voter results in favor of Karzai's supporters.

While a legitimate election would help consolidate Afghanistan's stability and fledgling democracy, if the vote is marred by violence and significant fraud, it will have enormous ramifications for Afghanistan and the United States. Any ethnic group or tribe that feels it has been cheated of a balanced representation in the parliament will seek to regain power through violence, and perhaps even join the Taliban. If the Taliban manage to prevent large numbers of Afghans from voting, it will only enhance its authority in the eyes of the local population and further discredit the legitimacy of the corruption-riddled Afghan government.

For Afghans, the parliamentary vote is more important than the presidential election. It directly shapes political dynamics and the distribution of power within each province. Significant fraud and voter intimidation, therefore, could fuel conflict between local political leaders and national power brokers.Ironically, despite the stakes, and in contrast to its behavior in the weeks preceding last year's Afghan presidential poll, the Obama administration has made few statements about the upcoming elections. Perhaps the White House fears that press attention to another tainted vote could further turn public opinion against the war. Certainly, another fraudulent poll would call into question the effectiveness of U.S., U.N., and NATO state-building in Afghanistan over the past year. It is easy to talk about a civilian surge, but it is quite another thing to make it effective.

Recognizing flawed processes and ineffective investments need not mean surrender, only recalibration and perhaps a shakeup in President Obama's and Secretary Clinton's Afghan team. Silence, however, is not a strategy. Rather, it's an indication of a foundering approach and a lack of leadership that neither Washington nor Kabul can any longer afford.

Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at AEI.

Photo Credit: Ahmad Massoud (UNAMA)

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