There is good news from Afghanistan: Last week the parliament passed, and President Hamid Karzai signed, a much-improved election law that preserves the existence of an independent electoral complaints commission. Over the weekend Karzai signed into law another measure, approved by parliament several weeks ago, outlining how the vote will be held. Many have feared that next year’s election would be held under deeply flawed presidential decrees. The election will be the most important Afghan political development of 2014 — and an inclusive and accountable election process needs active support now from the United States and NATO.
The April election, which could be the first peaceful transfer of power in the history of Afghanistan, will be a major bellwether of success, or failure, in the United States’ longest war. A reasonably successful election could help Afghanistan pull together for the difficult years after most U.S. and international troops are withdrawn in 2014. A disputed election, however, could lead to ethnic and tribal fighting; a corrupt election would be a death knell for U.S. and foreign support for Afghanistan.
The most decisive factors are in Afghan hands: Will there be massive ballot fraud, as happened in 2009? Will fraud be violently challenged? The majority Pashtun population lives in the most violent areas; will it be afraid to vote? If so, the Pashtuns are likely to regard the outcome as illegitimate. Afghan politicians may fail to come together and have so many feuding candidates that decisive results will be difficult — which could lead to violence.