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Afghan Elections: Uncertainty Persists

September 30, 2010

The future and legitimacy of the Afghan government remains uncertain. Nearly two weeks ago, a record low number of Afghans went to the polls to cast votes for a new Parliament. An estimated 3.6 million ballots were cast for nearly 2,500 candidates running for 249 Parliamentary seats. The elections were plagued by violence and intimidation from insurgent groups, including the Taliban. In addition to low turn out and violence, over 3,000 complaints were filed with the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), an Afghan election watchdog. Despite the challenges, some maintain–perhaps overly optimistically–that the elections and subsequent complaint investigations will remedy the perception of a corrupt and insufficient Afghan government. That remains to be seen in this fledgling, unstable democracy.

Coercion and fighting were pervasive as the Taliban made good on threats they would attempt to disrupt the election. This likely contributed to low voter turnout. Initial reports by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) indicated a decrease in election violence–down 37% from the 2009 presidential election.

However, ISAF later retracted the earlier report, saying instead that election violence was up, not down. According to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, election day violence was up 56% from 2009, with a record 443 insurgent attacks. This was the most violent election in Afghanistan since 2001. The Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan said it has “serious concerns about the quality of the election,” noting violence and widespread ballot stuffing as serious issues.

As many observers noted, rampant violence and corruption were both factors in low turn out and may thereby hamper the legitimacy of election results. The ECC reported 3,138 complaints from September 18-22 from 30 of 34 provinces. Over half had been sorted by September 23. Roughly 58% of the complains filed could, if proven, affect the election results. Overall, 45% of complaints filed noted polling irregularities.

Meanwhile, some say the willingness of some Afghans to brave violence and intimidation demonstrate the country’s slow procession toward a more democratic government. Some also say investigating the irregularities will bring credibility to the government. I remain skeptical that investigations, or anything for that matter, can bring credibility to the government of Afghanistan.

The elections results will likely leave the Afghan government’s legitimacy on shaky ground. Results are not expected earlier than October 8th, but could be delayed for months while election officials investigate the irregularities. A legitimate Afghan government is a fundamental cornerstone of US Counterinsurgency strategy; without it, the US COIN strategy is not workable.

It has been clear for sometime that US strategy in Afghanistan is failing, unable to produce any tangible results. A bipartisan effort in Congress–led by Rep. Frank Wolf (VA) and Rep. Barbara Lee (CA)–has urge President Obama to convene an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group to  provide a much needed comprehensive strategy review as well as recommendations for how best to process in the region. With the legitimacy of the Afghan government sure to be in question and uncertainty surrounding this round of elections, such a group might be the best hope for sensible strategy changes, to include a plan for responsibly exiting Afghanistan.

update: as of October 10th, the Electoral Complaints Commission has received 4,169 post-election complaints. Roughly 55% of these were categorized as potentially changing the outcome of the election if proven true, up slightly from my previous report. In addition, 136 candidates were suspected of violations and are currently under investigation. Complaints center around 175 candidates, 25 of which are sitting members of parliament. No update yet as to when we can expect election results.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jessica Halperin permalink*
    October 1, 2010 3:14 pm

    Thanks for posting this, Matt. I have high hopes for the realization (and the results) of the Afghanistan-Pakistan study group, too. This makes me question, again, the role of the United States in Afghanistan. It seems like a democratic system has to be something that CITIZENS want enough to create for themselves, and that any externally-imposed government system is unstable and questionable to some extent.

    What are the U.S. troops doing that are still on the ground over there?

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