The National Interest

Afghanistan's Elections: What Success Would Look Like

The latest news about Afghanistan—President Obama’s decision to have the Pentagon officially begin planning for a possible “zero option” after 2014—underscores the fragility of the U.S.-Afghan relationship. Despite the huge investment both countries have made together in their common mission, the partnership seems one wrong move away from breaking, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the young Afghan democracy and potentially severe consequences as well for the U.S.-led campaign against global terrorism.

But the Obama-Karzai relationship is not the greatest risk. The larger danger, rather, concerns the upcoming elections, in which eleven candidates seek to replace President Karzai after his dozen years in office. Due to take place on April 5, they will probably not produce a clear winner with more than 50 percent of the vote, requiring therefore a runoff later in the spring or early summer among the top two vote getters to produce a victor.

Despite all of Afghanistan’s big problems, the electoral campaign has gone fairly well so far. Media coverage of the candidates has been generally “fair and balanced.” There has been limited violence. The top candidates in the polls are well known to the international community and competent, and generally free of corruption. Warlord candidates are few. All of the would-be presidents support a continued U.S. and NATO role in their country after 2014, recognizing that their young nation is still weak and poor and at risk, and knowing that last fall’s loya Jirga as well as all recent public opinion polls indicate a generally pro-American public.

Unfortunately, the situation could rapidly deteriorate after April 5. The election could and almost surely will fall short of American standards of a successful vote. The country is still at war, especially in the Pashtun parts of the country, meaning that voting will be suppressed in some areas. That may tempt certain election workers again to stuff ballot boxes, like in 2009, as a means of compensation (or of blatant theft of the election). Even if election monitors catch them, as before, appearances will be very bad. Indeed, unlike last time, the actual outcome could change once votes are re-tallied, leading to the natural worry that the outcome was engineered. Whatever the U.S. Congress’s problems with President Karzai now, the situation could be even more serious if a new president counting on billions of dollars in American and international aid per year were not seen as the rightful winner of the election.

U.S. lawmakers have sometimes sought to cut off aid to regimes they viewed as illegitimate or fraudulent in the past despite those countries’ strategic importance to the United States. Congress ultimately opposed aid to the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the Mobutu regime in Zaire, several governments including El Salvador’s in Latin America, and a number of other erstwhile allies during the Cold War. President Carter considered pulling U.S. troops and diplomatic support from South Korea during an autocratic period in that country in the 1970s. To be sure, it often takes a while for the pressures to build to the boiling point when strategic stakes are high. But many American officials and the broader public are now skeptical about just how high the stakes remain in Afghanistan, with bin Laden now dead and the global jihad again shifting back towards the Middle East and North Africa. This is something most Afghan politicians either do not understand or underplay.

The moral is that American leaders need a realistic set of benchmarks against which to judge the success of the upcoming Afghan election. For their part, Afghans need to strive to reach such a standard, rather than simply assume that their nation's recent geostrategic salience will guarantee outside support after this year.

We would propose the following rules of thumb by which to assess the basic acceptability of the upcoming Afghan president vote and any runoff—which should be seen as reasonable standards for success by Americans, and important goals to be achieved by Afghans:

● The media should continue to cover all candidates fairly, and the democratic process should not be hamstrung by power brokers who try to drive certain candidates out of the race or unfairly advantage others.

● The vote itself should represent at least a modest improvement over the 2009 presidential race and 2010 parliamentary vote, in terms of ensuring turnout and curtailing fraud. It would be a hopeful sign, for example, if less than 20 percent of ballots had to be disqualified this time around.

● Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission and Electoral Complaints Commission, which do not have foreign members this time around, must again be seen as doing their jobs free of political influence, casting out illegitimate votes in whatever numbers the situation requires, just as they did in the past, without retribution or interference from the government. Afghanistan’s civil society and political parties need to play a proactive role in supervising the performance of the electoral apparatus and take robust action if they see any signs of wrongdoing in the process.

● Whoever wins the Afghan election should form a new government in an inclusive spirit—on this point at least, a future leader can learn from President Karzai, who always managed to construct a multi-ethnic cabinet. The outcome of the elections should not be contested by losing candidates unless fraud is systematic and egregious, given the country’s fragility.

● The next Afghan president must also be fair in his distribution of aid and his application of state power and justice across all provinces and ethnic groups, since the legitimacy of his presidency will depend not only on voting results but on methods of governance. This also requires that the next president be more willing to fire extremely corrupt officials than President Karzai has often been.

We know that the first election leading to a peaceful transfer of power is a crucial and extremely difficult step in any young democracy. Afghans need to do whatever they can to make the process succeed. And outsiders need to simultaneously hold the Afghan political system accountable while being realistic about what is achievable this year.

This opinion piece originally appeared in The National Interest