Op-Ed

Afghanistan’s Election Matters as Much for the Country as for the World

Bruce Riedel

Afghanistan’s Presidential election is still a work in progress but its implications will be enormous. President Barack Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan needs a legitimate and credible outcome from this election in order to build support for what is now America’s longest war both at home and abroad. The NATO mission in Afghanistan needs an Afghan partner who has the support of the Afghan people and can provide the decent governance that is essential to fighting an insurgency. War weariness is gaining ground in America and Europe, a flawed election would only add to discontent. So the stakes are unusually high in only the third election ever in the country’s history.

The preliminary results released on the Afghan elections so far are too small (only 17 percent of the polling places) to mean much. The claims of victory by the contenders, including incumbent President Hamid Karzai (a Pashtun) and his main challenger former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah (a Tajik), should also be given little attention; they are just spin. Charges of fraud and vote tampering need to be investigated thoroughly. Final results are not expected until next month and they will provide much more insight into the status of the war. In many ways they will be the best metrics on how the war is going.

The actual voting day events – violent and non-violent – demonstrated that both sides of the war achieved some, but not all, of their goals. For NATO and the Afghan government, the major accomplishment was just holding the election in the face of the Taliban’s announced determination to disrupt the process. This is a pretty low bar for a military alliance with almost 100,000 foreign troops and 150,000 Afghan security personnel on the ground but it was passed. The more difficult challenge of convincing Afghans and others that the outcome is legitimate and credible still lies ahead.

For the Taliban and its Al Qaeda partners, while they failed in their promised goal to disrupt the voting so as to prevent any semblance of an election, they succeeded in intimidating voters in many parts of the country, especially females, to effect a low turnout. According to NATO there were over 400 Taliban attacks on Election Day, a record number, and turnout in the Pashtun dominated provinces of the south was apparently very low.

While we await the final results, it is useful to look back at Afghanistan’s previous elections to set a base for interpreting the 2009 vote. In 2004 Hamid Karzai won Afghanistan’s first election by getting 56% of the vote with an official turnout of about 70%. It was more of a coronation than an election. Everyone knew that Karzai was America’s choice and the Taliban was unable to muster a serious challenge to the process.

The 2005 provincial and legislative elections are a more relevant and interesting base for reviewing 2009. Official turnout was less than 50% nationally and probably closer to 40% and it varied enormously by province. The Shia province of Bamian had 71% turnout but the Pashtun provinces in the south – the stronghold of the Taliban – had much lower. Zabol had less than 20%, Kandahar less than 25% and Orzugan, the home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, only 23%.

Even more varied was the vote by gender. In one Tajik province, women outvoted men 58% to 41% of the turnout. But in most provinces female turnout was 10-20% lower than the male vote. And in the Pashtun belt it was even more unbalanced. In Zabol the vote was 96% male and in Orzugan and Helmand 86% male. In 2005, the Taliban were not yet strong enough to mount a real challenge to the vote, while the Pashtuns simply did not feel the process was legitimate.

Indeed one of the clear lessons of both 2005 and 2009 is the widespread disaffection of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group (about 40% of the population). The south, heartland of the old Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, has never accepted the legitimacy of its overthrow in 2001. It will be very difficult under the best of circumstances to change that mood.

Next door, Pakistanis will be watching to see whether NATO or the Taliban look like winners and calculate their own policies as a result. Islamabad’s calculation of the outcome is as important as anyone’s. It will impact the Pakistani Army’s assessment of NATO’s staying power which is currently very low. Pakistanis have seen America abandon Afghanistan twice before and expect it to happen again. First was in the 1990s when, after the defeat of the Soviets, the United States basically turned its back on the Afghan people and left Pakistan to clean up the mess. Second was after the rapid fall of the Taliban regime when President Bush took his eye off the Afghan ball and ran to the Iraqi quagmire, starving the Afghan conflict of the troops and money needed to prevent the Taliban’s resurgence.

The generals who run Pakistan’s Afghan policies are convinced the U.S. and NATO will run away again. Therefore they keep their Taliban connections alive as a hedge for the future. They tolerate the Taliban’s presence on their territory, even allowing Mullah Omar to run his shura council that commands the insurgency from the city of Quetta in Baluchistan.

A credible election won’t change Pakistani attitudes over night; but it will provide the basis for a sustainable NATO presence in Afghanistan while the alliance builds up the strength of the Afghan army and police force – probably doubling its size – so they can contain the Taliban threat themselves, allowing foreign forces to begin their draw down.

So what next? If Karzai wins narrowly in the first round, he will owe victory to the politicians and warlords who endorsed him in the last months of the campaign, especially Abdul Rashid Dostam. Dostam is well known as an exceptionally brutal warlord who controls much of the Uzbek vote. He started his career in the Afghan communist army and was the Soviet’s only real effective Afghan commander. Then he got religion, jumped ship and joined the mujahedin, precipitating the collapse of the communist regime in 1992. Since then, he has switched sides endlessly, but in August he endorsed Karzai. If Karzai wins because of Dostam, then prospects for anti-corruption measures and good governance will be slim. NATO and America will need to be clear with Karzai that the warlords will not make a comeback.

If no one gets fifty percent plus one, we will have a runoff second round in October. Karzai and his likely opponent Abdullah Abdullah will have a real horse race. Each will seek endorsements from the other contenders and the warlords. Dostam could flip again. The Taliban will try again to assassinate the candidates and upturn the process. Much can and will go wrong.

But a second round would also build legitimacy and credibility into the Afghan political process. More democracy – not less – is a good thing in this war. A new government in Kabul, even if it still has Karzai as President but with a credible popular mandate earned in a credible election fight, can be the basis for changing the momentum in this conflict. After almost eight years of neglect, the Taliban are winning. A new strategy, new commanders and more troops can reverse that trend but only if they have a credible Afghan partner.