Reason to be cheerful? Afghanistan’s elections

Being immersed in PhD corrections as I am right now, I unfortunately haven’t had time to write a proper post this week. So I’m cheating and instead pulling together some articles I’ve found interesting regarding the Afghan elections last weekend.

Afghan men wait in line outside a polling station in Kabul to cast their ballots. Fardin Waezi/UN Photo

Afghan men wait in line outside a polling station in Kabul to cast their ballots. Fardin Waezi/UN Photo

Together with affairs in Ukraine and Russia, the elections in Afghanistan have dominated foreign affairs news these past weeks. Which is unsurprising given that many in the west regard them as an early indicator of how well Afghanistan will fair in the wake of the foreign troop withdrawal this year. The creation of a stable and democratic government in Kabul is crucial for the continued progress of the country. As the election drew closer, and Taliban attacks increased (including against foreign journalists and the Independent Election Commission (IEC)), many were understandably worried – poor turnout on election day could bring into question the legitimacy of the winning presidential candidate. As it transpired, participation in the election defied all expectation, with millions of Afghan men and women braving the rain, the queues and the fear of attack to cast their vote. Altogether, seven million voters turned out on Saturday 5th April, a level so unprecedented that polling stations across the country began to run out of ballots. Afgan Democracy.org proclaimed it a great blow for the Taliban. The election was a good sign for women in Afghanistan too, as Foreign Policy noted. The percentage of female voters was very high, as was the number of female candidates, who even campaigned alongside their male counterparts. And while no women ran for president, three did go for the position of vice president. Such news bodes well for the future of women in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in the New Statesman, William Dalrymple looked at what the elections mean for Afghanistan’s future as the west starts to leave, concluding that things are finally starting to look up for the blighted country. I am actually reading Dalrymple’s Return of the King at the moment and highly recommend it. Indeed, I have a soft spot for Dalrymple, given that I too am a historian with an interest in current affairs in Asia. Although, unfortunately for me, I don’t have quite the connections Dalrymple has, as he recalls his personal encounters with the three presidential front-runners Dr Ashraf Ghani (who’s TED talk on rebuilding broken states is well worth a listen), Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul. Together with the high election turnout and the quality of the presidential candidates, Dalrymple gives other reasons for Afghans to be cheerful, including the fact that the cities of the country are growing, schools are opening, literacy is increasing and television, the internet and the media are all helping to broaden minds.

The one anxiety that still remains, as Dalrymple sees it, is Pakistan. Afghanistan’s neighbour has always been wary of a pro-Indian government taking hold in Kabul, which has helped influence its thinking when it comes to the Taliban. And yet, even here things could be developing in Afghanistan’s favour, with Pakistan reportedly growing disillusioned with the Taliban. As Frederic Grare reports for the Carnegie Endowment, however, things are rarely that simple when it comes to Af-Pak relations. Yes the Pakistan army is apparently looking to crack down on the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which operates in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). But there is a danger that should it do so the TTP might then move into Afghanistan to join forces with the Afghan Taliban, causing greater trouble for both countries.

For others, it is not necessarily the Taliban which we should be worried about. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Paul Miller warns that the greatest danger to the future of Afghan democracy is not a resurgent Taliban but the Afghan army itself. In Miller’s opinion, with help from the ISAF, the Afghan army has become increasingly capable and effective. By comparison, the Taliban have proved singularly inept at governing and ‘tactically overmatched’. The fact that the Taliban is still in existence is, according to Miller, due to the weakness of the current Afghanistan government and Pakistan complicity more than anything else. Assessing the risk factors, Miller believes that Afghanistan is ripe for a military coup, and recommends coup-proofing policies from the international community, including supporting competing security forces such as the police and intelligence services, and keeping the Afghan army a mix of ethnicities. Miller’s argument is an important warning about the need for the newly elected Afghan government to be strong – military coups happen when weak and inept governments are in place.

A recent paper from Chatham House also pours some cold water on the excitement of the elections last weekend. As the paper notes, while there was indeed a high turn-out, the enthusiasm of voters was not so much an endorsement of the candidates themselves, rather a ‘rejection of insurgent attempts to disrupt the election’; Afghans were being defiant in the face of Taliban threats. While this in itself is a positive sign for the progress of the country, the paper raises concerns over what could happen should there be accusations of fraud and meddling in the election results. Any good feeling which election day has created will quickly dissipate and turn sour should this become a tussle between the presidential candidates. Importantly, the future government will be weakened should there be any questions over its legitimacy. To guard against this, the paper’s authors call for the international community to help make sure that the counting and the complaints processes are transparent and to commit to continued support of Afghanistan’s electoral institutions for 2015.

Of course, there will always be some who are more cautious and even more pessimistic than others. But altogether, while there still seems a long way to go before Afghanistan is a stable and democratic nation, the pictures last weekend of queues of Afghans waiting to vote have certainly provided reason to be optimistic.

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