The Real Failure of the Afghan Election

Robert Naiman

The post-election claims about the Afghan election have had the unfortunate effect of obscuring a far more fundamental consequence for evaluating the future of U.S. policy. The fundamental failure was not the attempted theft of votes by some Karzai supporters and some Abdullah supporters. The fundamental failure was the failure of the US and allied forces to provide security for the election, as they had promised to do. 

The elephant in the room is this: the foreign forces failed in their promise to provide security.

If the U.S. and its allies could not establish security for this single event, an event on which they were highly focused, an event for which they had explicitly increased their forces in the country, that suggests that current plans to provide security by increasing foreign forces will fail, absent a broad political process to resolve Afghanistan’s conflicts – a political process that must include the Taliban” insurgencies to be successful. 

As CIA Director Leon Panetta has noted, it is likely that after throwing away some votes, the current recount will confirm Karzai’s first-round victory. The New York Times reported on September 16 that, according to the official tally, Karzai had 3,093,256 votes, or 54.6 percent; Abdullah had 1,571,581 votes, or 27.8 percent; there were 5,662,758 valid votes. One of the European Union monitors said 1.1 million suspicious votes belonged to Karzai and 300,000 to Abdullah; these were not necessarily fraudulent votes but votes that needed to be investigated. If every suspicious” vote were thrown out, then the final tally would be Karzai 46.8 percent, Abdullah 29.8 percent, and under the rules, there would be a second round, because Karzai didn’t get 50 percent in the first round.

But, as Panetta noted, the commission doing the recount isn’t going to throw out every suspicious” vote. The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission ordered a recount and audit of ballot boxes and ballots in any polling place that had 600 or more votes or had more than 100 votes and 95 percent of the ballots cast for a single candidate. Many of these will turn out to be valid votes. Many villages voted en bloc, AFP reported on September 13. (Believe it or not, there are precincts in the United States that went 95 percent for President Obama in 2008.)

If half of the reviewed ballots corresponding to each candidate were thrown out, the result would be Karzai 51.2 percent; Abdullah 28.6 percent, and there would be no runoff. Indeed, if the proportion of reviewed ballots thrown out is the same for the two candidates, then if less than 65 percent of the reviewed ballots are thrown out, there will be no run-off. And if many Karzai votes are thrown out, many Abdullah votes are likely to be thrown out, since some of Abdullah’s people clearly tried to steal votes too, as The Washington Post reported on August 28.

So the electoral outcome is very likely to be the re-election of President Karzai. And this shouldn’t be very surprising to anyone who read The Washington Post on August 11, when it reported:

In a poll released Monday, Karzai led with 45 percent of the vote among decided voters, compared with 25 percent for Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister. The U.S.-government-funded poll by Glevum Associates, conducted July 8 – 19, had Ghani fourth, with 4 percent of the vote.

On the contrary, the most significant and disturbing electoral result was this: the turnout was 38.17 percent. In contrast, the turnout in the 2004 presidential election was 70 percent. Of course, some of the drop-off was due to disillusionment with the political process, the lack of novelty in a second, rather than first, presidential election. But those factors alone don’t explain a 50 percent drop in voter participation.

The elephant in the room is this: the foreign forces failed in their promise to provide security.

This was both a military and a diplomatic failure of major significance, both for whether U.S. plans will lead to security for Afghanistan and for the question of who will be part of those plans. Securing the Afghan election was a top priority for governments with forces in Afghanistan.

European countries like Britain and Italy that were asked by the U.S. earlier this year to send more troops to Afghanistan replied that they were willing to send more troops temporarily to help secure the election.

More troops were sent, but they did not secure the election. That was the military failure.

The political and diplomatic failure was that diplomatic efforts to get Taliban commanders to stand down for the elections also did not succeed.

In March, The New York Times reported that the British government had sent several dispatches to [Pakistan] in recent months” asking that Pakistani military intelligence use its meetings with the Taliban to persuade its commanders to scale back violence in Afghanistan before the August presidential election there.

Why did those entreaties fail? Presumably, because the forces within the world of Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban leadership who wanted them to fail were stronger than the forces who wanted them to succeed. Perhaps these efforts failed because the U.S. did not sufficiently support them; perhaps the Pentagon thought it could secure the elections by force alone. If so, it was a major error to think so.

Failure to secure the Afghan elections suggests an obvious conclusion: at the level of troops that the U.S. and its allies are capable of sending, efforts to establish security in Afghanistan will fail unless a significantly greater constituency within Pakistan and within the Taliban leadership is brought on board; perhaps that’s a message the Taliban was sending the U.S. with its disruption of the election. And bringing those constituencies on board will require a broader political dialogue than the U.S. has been willing to contemplate so far.

In terms of promoting stability, the post-2001 political dispensation in Afghanistan had a fatal flaw: it excluded the Taliban. A 2007 report of the Congressional Research Service noted,

After the fall of Kabul in November 2001, the United Nations invited major Afghan factions, most prominently the Northern Alliance and that of the former King — but not the Taliban — to a conference in Bonn, Germany.

That conference created the post-2001 political framework in Afghanistan.

As far back as October 2006, then Senate Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist, on a trip to Afghanistan, said he had concluded that the Taliban could not be defeated militarily and urged support for efforts to bring people who call themselves Taliban” and their allies into the Afghan government. That was when the US had 20,000 troops in Afghanistan. Now we’re on our way to 68,000 and higher if President Obama approves General McChrystal’s expected request for even more troops.

This is the bridge the U.S. government has refused so far to cross. Efforts to end the insurgency by demobilizing individuals have failed. A much broader political effort is needed within Afghanistan and the region. Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus have both acknowledged in the past that the endgame will be a political settlement. But Mullen and others say the time is not yet ripe to begin, because the Taliban are too strong and the US is too weak. 

This is short-sighted. The Taliban have proven that they cannot be defeated militarily, but no-one believes the U.S. can be defeated militarily either. What is it that remains to be proved? A broad political process is going to take time to achieve a lasting settlement. All the more reason to get it started.

A political settlement does not mean handing Afghanistan over to Taliban rule, any more than a political settlement in Northern Ireland meant handing Northern Ireland over to IRA rule. To paraphrase President Obama from another context, supporters of the Taliban should have a seat at the table; they don’t get to own the table.

Is such a scenario plausible? An article in The New York Times in May suggested that it was. Dexter Filkins reported that an intermediary in talks with Taliban leaders said he had gotten them to agree to put forward the following demands:

The first demand was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country over the next 18 months. Then the current government would be replaced by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders, including those of the Taliban and other insurgents. Americans and other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. Nationwide elections would follow after the Western forces left.

That suggests a table at which representatives of the Taliban are present, not one which they own. Why shouldn’t the prospect of such a table be tested now?

This article originally appeared at Truthout​.org.

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Robert Naiman is Policy Director and National Coordinator at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. He edits the Just Foreign Policy daily news summary and writes a blog on Huffington Post.
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