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Afghanistan: Good luck with the election

April 3, 2014

Summary: On Saturday, the Afghan people go to the polls to produce a new President. Popular engagement is encouraging and the Taliban look unlikely to halt (or even significantly damage) the process. There will be significant flaws in the process, particularly fraud and violence. But a broadly peaceful transition of power looks the most likely outcome and will be a positive pointer for a still very challenging Afghanistan future

Election rally, AbdullahTo move a country from the total devastation and fragmentation of a multi-decade conflict (arguably several different conflicts) takes time and often involves many backward steps and fewer forward ones. Afghanistan exemplifies this perfectly. It is now on the brink of its third electoral “cycle”, the beginning of a presidential (and provincial) elections, to be followed by a parliamentary election in 2015. The likely difficulties of the 5th April presidential election – fraud, corruption, complaints, violence and layers of confusion regarding the result – need to be seen in a longer-term context. If we assume that a broadly democratic process is ultimately in the longer term interest of the people of Afghanistan (and many amongst an array of neighbouring countries and armed groups think differently), it might take five or six such electoral cycles before it becomes clear whether the Afghan experiment is going to work in the direction that most of the Afghan population and international community appear to hope it will.

I am cautiously optimistic about the election. The level of popular engagement looks high and genuine, perhaps more so than 2009. Debate, all manner of media, discussion, posters, mass rallies are all encouragingly evident. Michal Semple reports that, although the Taliban remain violently and conceptually opposed, they are genuinely very interested in what is happening. But they are sinking to lower levels of soft targeting and demonstrating a real bankruptcy of ideas, vision and dialogue beyond killing. Even fellow insurgent leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, appears to be recognising the need to be seen to be engaging politically and has urged his supporters to back presidential candidate (and ex-HIG member) Qutbuddin Helal. March 2014 was the first time for years that no US soldier was killed in either Afghanistan or Iraq. The Taliban will increasingly have to kill Afghan citizens or members of the international aid community to make whatever point it is they are trying to make.

Sarah Chayes recently made the point that the next two years is the crucial period for Afghanistan and that the elections are not really as important as people think. I think she is correct in the first assertion but perhaps a little bit harsh concerning the second: the election is important, but we should certainly see it as part of a longer process.  A broadly successful election, giving a peaceful transition of power, will give a clear pointer as to what can be achieved in the future and a strong rejection of Taliban and other insurgent groups. This will be a valuable building block for her 2015-2016 period.

As ever, there are many things that could go wrong, either on the days around the election or in the months and years to follow. The Taliban killing a key candidate remains an outside chance but could easily derail the process, sparking more violence. A “stolen” election, or one that is perceived as such, would have a similar result.

My main concern is that, having achieved a broadly peaceful transition of power, a nagging insurgency, although not necessarily powerful in its own right, combined with political and economic stagnation, causes friction and fracture within the government. A revival of warlord power blocs all squabbling for control of government (and, critically, the military) from their regional powerbases would see a slide backwards, perhaps even as far as a 1990s civil war. Meddling neighbours – Pakistan, Iran, India – could still disrupt political economic and security processes that are still fledgling, should internal Afghan developments not go the way they want.

But none of the main candidates – Abdullah, Ghani, Rassoul – look to be a bad bet for the country (although some vice presidents and associated followers are slightly more suspect). For the moment, therefore, I just wanted to wish Afghanistan the very best of luck with the election. I think it will work.

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