Why an Election Was Never the Answer in Afghanistan

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Paula Bronstein / Getty

President Hamid Karzai speaks to the interntional media along side U.S. Senator John Kerry and Kai Eide, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Afghanistan, during a joint news conference announcing that there will be a run-off election on November 7th at the presidential palace, October 20, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Little over a week ago, Senator John Kerry was hailed for his diplomatic success in Kabul, where he cajoled President Hamid Karzai into accepting a runoff in the disputed Afghan election. But Sunday's withdrawal from the race by Karzai's challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, rendered Kerry's achievement moot. Moreover, it was an outcome the U.S. had come around to rooting for.

The fact that U.S. officials in Kabul had pivoted within a matter of days from insisting that a runoff be held to pressing for it to be canceled highlighted the problem with the U.S.'s obsession on staging elections in conflict zones. Such elections, though often held up (with the U.S. domestic political audience in mind) as examples of democracy's triumph, can actually undermine U.S. goals in those situations. Contrary to the Obama Administration's spin, resolving the dispute over the fraudulent ballots in Afghanistan's August election was never the key to determining whether to send more U.S. troops into the country. In fact, the runoff election was never going to strengthen the legitimacy of the resulting government; it was always more likely to further weaken it.

Elections typically only resolve a conflict when the major parties to that conflict have accepted the balloting and its ground rules as the basis for a solution. And that was no more the case in Afghanistan today than it was in the U.S. in 1864, when a presidential election was held during the Civil War. Nobody imagined that the electoral contest between President Abraham Lincoln and General George B. McClellan was the country's primary political battle; nor was the contest between Karzai and Abdullah the key conflict in Afghanistan. Instead, Afghanistan is in the grip of a civil war that pits a U.S.-backed political establishment, which includes both Karzai and Abdullah, against the Taliban.

In that light, the main legitimacy problem with the August vote was not the 1 million–plus fake votes that were cast mostly for Karzai but the 12 million–plus votes claimed by the Taliban. No one actually voted for the Taliban, of course, and its call for a boycott of the poll was enforced by threat of death. But whether out of fear, political choice or sheer indifference, 12 million voters — representing 70% of the electorate, compared with just 30% in 2004 — stayed away from the ballot stations. A runoff election was expected to see an even smaller turnout.

Even as it pressed for a runoff, the U.S. seemed to recognize its irrelevance. By many accounts, its insistence on a second vote was intended as leverage to press Karzai into accepting a unity government with Abdullah rather than to actually go through with the poll. But Karzai called Washington's bluff, insisting on a second round he was confident of winning. Meanwhile, Abdullah, claiming that he'd be cheated again and probably recognizing that he was never likely to win even a clean election against Karzai, made clear his intention to boycott the runoff early on. The runoff was unlikely to help stabilize the country or resolve its fundamental conflicts, and canceling it simply denied the Taliban another opportunity to demonstrate its strength by ensuring an even lower turnout.

It has become conventional wisdom even among the U.S. and its NATO allies that stability in Afghanistan will ultimately depend on a political settlement that somehow involves most of those currently fighting under the Taliban rubric. So just as the U.S. chose to avoid the very election it had forced Karzai to accept and turned instead to brokering a backroom deal that would dilute the incumbent's authority, any political solution in Afghanistan will have be negotiated on the basis of the real distribution of power, rather than votes cast in an election staged in the heat of a civil war.