Afghan elections ‘vindicate investments and sacrifices’, suggest waning Karzai influence


After enduring Taliban attacks and security clampdowns, Afghans reveled Sunday in the apparent success of the weekend’s presidential election, as officials offered solid indications that the vote far exceeded expectations, The New York Times reports:

Two senior officials from the Independent Election Commission said the authorities supervising the collection of ballots in tallying centers had counted between seven million and 7.5 million total ballots, indicating that about 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters had taken part in the election. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because results will not be released for weeks.

“This has been the best and most incident-free election in Afghanistan’s modern history and it could set the precedent for a historic, peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Fahim Sadeq, head of the Afghanistan National Participation Organization, an observer group.

Former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani and opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah appeared to be the two front-runners in Afghanistan’s presidential election, sidelining a candidate viewed as President Hamid Karzai’s favorite, according to partial results tallied by news organizations and one candidate, The Wall Street Journal reports:

A victory for Mr. Abdullah or Mr. Ghani could significantly reduce the influence of Mr. Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Both candidates say they will sign the bilateral security agreement, which is needed to maintain American aid and a limited U.S. military presence in Afghanistan once the international coalition’s current mandate expires in December. Mr. Karzai has infuriated Washington by refusing to complete the deal.

Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, said he expected the election to end in a cordial runoff.

“All of the candidates have a deep vested interest in the stability of the Afghan state,” he said. “Though they may rock the boat, they won’t capsize it.”

“I am genuinely encouraged,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington who recently visited Kabul. “The high turnout, modest levels of violence, and good performance of the Afghan army and police are all genuine good-news stories,” he said by e-mail yesterday.

The election was a repudiation of the Taliban. Violence in the run-up to the voting backfired, notes Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.

“Each attack aimed at discouraging participation seemed to encourage even more people to register. Taliban efforts to intimidate communities at the local level also failed,” he writes for The National Interest. “Even in Pashtun areas in the east and south, turnout was high. With their cause and methods rejected, the armed opposition will undertake needed soul searching,” says Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

Afghan electoral institutions performed well. More so than in previous years, the international community operated largely in a supporting role as Afghans took the lead in conducting elections. Although there were reports of ballot shortages in some polling stations, voting, from an administrative standpoint, went remarkably smoothly. …………..Afghan security institutions were effective. Though some stations remained closed for security reasons, Taliban efforts to disrupt voting produced no major security incidents across the country. Afghans’ confidence in security institutions has increased, portending, perhaps, a new level of trust that could suppress the insurgency.

The National Democratic Institute today underlined the need for observers to follow the tallying and complaints process to help ensure the integrity of the April 5 presidential and provincial elections:

Since the margins among the contestants may be slim and a small number of votes may affect the outcome, it is critical that observers follow the tallying and complaints process closely, NDI said. In a preliminary statement, NDI said a final assessment be made only after the electoral institutions had completed their activities.

NDI fielded an observer delegation of 101 Afghan staff members who visited 327 polling stations in 26 provinces. Many of them helped prepare 46,000 candidate and political party polling agents in the lead-up to the elections.

The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan said ballot counting had begun after voting was extended by an hour.

“Out of 7 million, around 35 percent of them were Afghan women, a great signal to practice democracy,” IEC Chairman Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani said yesterday in Kabul, adding that the turnout was more than twice that of the 2009 elections.

The fact that the election wasn’t disrupted by violence — only 3 percent of polling stations closed for security reasons — isn’t a guarantee the rest of the electoral process will be smooth, said Martine van Bijlert of the Afghan Analysts Network.

“There are still credible reports of fraud from the areas that are difficult to monitor and from where news travels slowly,” said Van Bijlert, co-director of the nonprofit policy group based in Kabul. “And we might still see a very contested count.”

But so far, the election vindicates the large investments and sacrifices of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan,” Khalilzad asserts:

The Afghan people rose to the occasion, creating an environment of hope and expectation. This presents the country, particularly the new President, with an opportunity to build on the positive achievements of the last 12 years. By resisting the temptation for a winner-take-all approach and including the losing candidates and/or their supporters, the new administration can build a national consensus behind the reforms necessary to advance peace building, economic development, the rule of law, and anti-corruption efforts.

Is Afghanistan ready for April 5th election?

“Is Afghanistan Ready for the April 5th Elections?” (AUDIO)  was today the subject of an on-the-record conference call with David S. Sedney, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia (2009-2013), and Hamid Arsalan, Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy. Robert Zarate, Policy Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, moderated the discussion between speakers and reporters.

With only several hours until polls open across Afghanistan for this historic election, the panelists focused on key issues facing the fledgling democracy, including:

  • What’s at stake for the United States in seeing a successful Afghan presidential election
  • The Afghan election process and timeline
  • How Afghan forces are dealing with potential security threats to presidential candidates, voters and journalists
  • The future of the U.S.- Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA)
  • Relations among the United States, Afghanistan, and Afghanistan’s NeighborsTo listen to audio from today’s Afghanistan discussion, visit FPI’s website.

Afghanistan’s next president?

afganghaniAshraf Ghani is an impatient man, says analyst Jeffrey E. Stern.

“I have a strange—because there’s no other way probably of describing it—uh, temper,” he says. “I’m a very difficult taskmaster. I don’t wait.”

That’s not so surprising when you consider he was educated, started a family, and worked most of his adult life in America. But he’s also Afghan, raised in Kabul, and now one of eight presidential candidates in a country not known for punctuality, Stern writes for The New Republic:

It’s one way the former U.S. citizen—he renounced his citizenship in 2009 during his first run for the Afghan presidency—is still defined by America, and it’s one reason he’s known as a prickly personality. “He has an incredible reputation of having really angered every cabinet member he ever worked with,” says Ronald E. Neumann, America’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-2007. But perhaps that’s what it takes. Because Ghani, Neumann adds, “is enormously organized. Any time you go see Ashraf he has ideas and plans and the plans are developed, and they’re developed down to six levels of specificity.”

That specificity reveals itself even in the way Ashraf Ghani speaks about himself, like a man reading from a ledger of his own life with all the dates listed neatly in the margins. He doesn’t have to pause and add things up in his head—all the details are at the ready, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him to remember, five decades later and without a moment’s hesitation, that “I left on August 26, 1977” or that “in the last four years I have travelled 140 times to the provinces and there isn’t one province I haven’t been to at least twice.” “An encyclopedic memory,” is how Clare Lockhart, who launched the Institute for State Effectiveness and coauthored Fixing Failed States with Ghani, describes it. “An ability to recall events with absolute precision.”


Afghans set to turn the tables on Karzai?

Afghanistan(1)The White House’s release of the readout from President Barack Obama’s recent phone call with Afghan President Hamid Karzai signifies a shift in the U.S. approach to Karzai’s government, according to two leading observers.

While stressing the importance of holding a “fair, credible, timely and Afghan-led” election, President Obama made clear that the ball is in Karzai’s court when it comes to signing the Bilateral Security Agreement or BSA, which would allow for a small U.S. military contingent to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to train and support Afghan forces, Hamid Arsalan and Scott Smith write for Foreign Policy:

By emphasizing the election over the BSA, President Obama has increased his leverage over the Afghan president. It’s a risky move- in order to retain a post-2014 presence in Afghanistan, either Karzai has to reverse his position on not signing the BSA until after the elections, or the elections will have to be held timely and smoothly.

afghan-150x150The election will not be perfect and some fraud is inevitable. But the U.S. should be cautious about making snap judgments, they contend:

In the end, all of the candidates have a stake in the legitimacy of the election. Also, this is the third electoral cycle for Afghans, which includes a large number of younger voters who have come of voting age since the last election. Afghan youth are paying attention to the campaigns and are following the debates and expressing their expectations for a legitimate transfer of power. They are unlikely to remain silent if there is massive fraud in April vote.

A peaceful, democratic transfer of power-unprecedented in Afghanistan-would be “a huge boost to the confidence of this young democracy,” Arsalan and Smith suggest:

Afghans over the past thirty years have seen monarchy, communism, anarchy, and theocracy, and in the past decade they have embraced democracy as a system of governance. …A campaign among candidates that highlights differences without being overly divisive would demonstrate a cohesive political class eager to solve Afghanistan’s problems. A decently-run election would provide a new government in Kabul with the legitimacy it needs to sign the BSA, reset its relationship with its international partners, particularly the United States, and get down to the business of governing.


Hamid Arsalan, a member of Foreign Policy Initiative’s Future Leaders, is a Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Scott Smith is the director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Defying Taliban, Afghans head to the polls

Afghanistan(1)Any judgment about the situation in Afghanistan should start by recalling what’s been achieved, says Marc Grossman, United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2011-2012:

In 2002, an estimated 900,000 boys were in school and virtually no girls. Today, 10.5 million Afghan students are enrolled in school, nearly 40 percent of them girls. The number of teachers has increased from 20,000 in 2002 to more than 175,000 today; 30 percent are women. Access to basic health services has risen from 9 percent in 2001 to more than 60 percent today. Life expectancy for Afghans has increased by more than 20 years since 2002, from about 42 years to over 62 years. Afghanistan’s GDP has grown about 9 percent annually since 2002. In 2001, there was one mobile phone company with 21,000 subscribers. Today, four companies have more than 16 million subscribers. In 2002, the country had 50 kilometers of paved road; today there are nearly 2,500 kilometers of paved roads, giving 80 percent of the population greater access to markets, schools, clinics and government services.

Social indicators are impressive, too: Women-owned businesses and associations today number more than 3,000. There are three women out of 25 cabinet ministers, and 68 of the 249 seats in the National Assembly are held by women. Female voters account for nearly 35 percent of new voter registrations. Afghanistan has more than 50 television stations, 150 radio broadcasters and 1,000 newspapers; 472,000 Afghans are on Facebook, and 80 percent of women have access to a mobile phone.

Afghanistan, of course, still faces profound challenges including corruption, poverty, the need for stronger governance and security, and the many issues that stand in the way of real empowerment and protection of women and girls, says Grossman, a Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy in 2013, who outlines five important considerations:

First, what will happen election day? Afghans and those who wish them well want an election outcome in which the majority of Afghans will consider their new leader legitimate. ….

If Afghans can produce the first peaceful and democratic transfer of presidential power in Afghan history, this will do much to solidify the gains made over the last 12 years and show all Afghans – and especially the Taliban – that the rule of law matters.

Second, a US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement, or BSA, needs to be signed so that the United States, its allies, friends and partners can leave a robust force in Afghanistan after the end of the international combat mission in December to continue combating extremism and training the ANSF. …..

Third, the private sector continues to promote economic growth. …… The US can keep the region focused on a “New Silk Road,” private-sector focused, designed to connect Central Asian economies with South Asian economies with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the center, where all can benefit first from transit trade and foreign direct investment. Future international assistance programs should focus on support for Afghan entrepreneurs, especially women.

Fourth, creating an Afghan peace process may still be possible. Among the first jobs for a new Afghan president will be assessing the possibilities of pursuing a peace process with the Taliban. The Taliban, in turn, will make their own judgment. If they see a successful election, a signed BSA, a robust residual force, continued economic growth, an ANSF willing and able to fight, Mullah Omar and his followers may finally recognize that perpetual war is not the answer. …..

Finally, a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan can only exist in a secure, stable and prosperous region. ….. Pakistanis increasingly recognize that the threat to them is from the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, and that is why they have taken recent military action against the group even as they explore peace talks. Peace, prosperity and stability in Afghanistan are to Pakistan’s benefit; chaos benefits the TTP.

© 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale