Brookings Experts on Afghanistan Elections

Starting Saturday, April 5, Afghans vote in national elections for a new president and provincial leaders. Current President Hamid Karzai is not on the ballot, and the Taliban has vowed to disrupt the process. Brookings experts comment on the stakes and circumstances.

Give the Afghans a little credit where credit is due. They are capable of doing some pretty good things and we owe it to them to stick with them in the effort. — Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings Cafeteria Podcast (Jan. 2014), speaking of Afghanistan generally

On Monday, Brookings hosted

a discussion on the elections and upcoming drawdown of U.S. troops

. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann said that the U.S. has two goals: “an acceptable passage of power to a new president” and “a reasonably better election, more progress and democracy.”

Read why Amb. Neumann cautioned against “reacting to all the cries and yells of fraud and misbehavior which will immediately break out after the first vote” this weekend because, he said, this is to be expected.”

Najib Sharifi, senior analyst at Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness, a Kabul-based think tank; former ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen (USMC, Ret.), and Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon also offered their views on the election and security issues.

Amb. Neumann and O’Hanlon 

examined the three major candidates

: Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani, and Zalmai Rassoul, writing that:

Each of the three candidates would be a plausible president of Afghanistan — or a plausible first-round loser. Each would be more comfortable for the West than Karzai. So when complaints about fraud are voiced by the camps of whoever falls short in the first round, we should not jump to conclusions or declare the Afghan project a failure.

O’Hanlon and Sharifi wrote a piece on the elections, noting the “larger danger” of a runoff election in the likely event that no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. 

The authors offer some “rules of thumb by which to assess the basic acceptability of the” vote tomorrow and any runoff, including a call for the winner to “form a new government in an inclusive spirit.”

Read more on all of their recommendations.

In a chapter for an anthology on Afghanistan prepared for the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Interior, Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown addressed the security and political situation today in Afghanistan. One of the chief policy challenges for the U.S. in relation to the change of power in Kabul is the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement, which has not occurred with President Karzai, who has said that his successor must sign it. However, the Obama administration has said that it cannot wait for a new government to be formed. Felbab-Brown cautions:

And yet waiting for the successor to sign will likely involve waiting considerably beyond April 2014. Even if the elections are not delayed for security or weather reasons, the first round is unlikely to produce a winner with over 50% of the vote. Claims of fraud, demands for recount, and political bargaining may delay the second round for several weeks or months. A similar contestation of the results, political bargaining, and delays could easily take place after the second round of the elections. Even once the winner is determined, he may require weeks to form a government. Thus, it is not at all inconceivable that a new Afghan president ready to sign the BSA might not be available until October or November 2014, and it is questionable whether either the United States or NATO partners will be willing to wait that long. A United Nations extension of the current ISAF mandate may buy time and delay the deadline for total U.S. and ISAF withdrawal for a few months until 2015, but it is not clear that either Washington or Kabul is ready to accept such an interim measure or that U.N. Security Council countries such as Russia and China would consent to such a temporary deal without an explicit agreement from the Afghan government.

Download and read her chapter here.

Felbab-Brown also wrote about Afghanistan’s transition opportunities in 2014. “The April 2014 presidential and provincial council elections in Afghanistan dominated the country’s political life in 2013 and have continued to do so into 2014,” she wrote.

Whether the elections are seen as broadly legitimate to the Afghan people or trigger a deep political crisis and potentially first round of infighting will be at least as crucial for shaping Afghanistan’s future as whether any Western military forces remain in Afghanistan after 2014. On the one hand, a successful election process could serve as a platform for renewal of a political system that is seen as widely illegitimate because of the incompetence, corruption, nepotism, and power abuse of the Afghan government and associated powerbrokers. It could seize the political energies that Afghanistan’s young, but fragile and in many ways up-for-grabs civil society exhibited in 2013. On the other hand, the extensive fraud, an insecurity-related sense of disenfranchisement among Pashtuns, or a refusal by losers in the elections to accept the results could trigger a prolonged political paralysis, turbulence, and violence, also eviscerating the already weakened support for a continued engagement in Afghanistan among Western governments and publics. Paradoxically, a weak person without a political base to threaten established powerbrokers has the greatest chance to become a consensus candidate, and resurrecting the legitimacy of the political system in Afghanistan also requires the willingness, adroitness, and political power to take on the powerbrokers and start improving governance in Afghanistan. Moreover, if and when a new government is formed, in the still extremely personalistic and patronage-based Afghanistan political system, layers and layers of institutions will likely change and potentially disrupts processes the West has sought to inculcate.

Read the full article here.

In a paper for the Big Bets & Black Swans presidential briefing book, Felbab-Brown offered recommendations on what the U.S. should do to assist Afghanistan in holding successful elections but also what to do in the event that something goes wrong.

Watch the video below and download the memo here.

Visit the archive of
Brookings research and commentary on Afghanistan