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U.S. Prepares for Questions of Legitimacy in Afghan Election

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/08/karzai.jpgAfghan Presisent Hamid Karzai (U.S. Dept. of Defense)

With Thursday’s presidential election in Afghanistan proving difficult to forecast, some analysts in and outside the Obama administration are considering U.S. options if the next government is viewed as illegitimate. If so, the U.S. may push the winner toward forming a “national unity government” to incorporate the losing factions into a governing coalition — a move that incumbent president Hamid Karzai is already indicating he’ll pursue.

At issue is the prospect of either violence, voter apathy or anger at the election returns yielding a government that attempts to rule 34 million million people with an asterisk beside its name. Earlier this year, an independent Afghan election commission decreed that security dangers compelled pushing the vote from April to August, a decision with consequences for the Obama administration, as it sought to work with the lame-duck Karzai government to improve deteriorating security and governance.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Last Wednesday at an event at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, Amb. Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that some of the administration’s plans for expanding Afghan governing capacity — viewed as integral to the war’s fortunes — required a delay until a legitimate government resulted from the election. “A government needs legitimacy,” Holbrooke said last week. “The decision to ignore the constitution and delay the election has caused a reorientation of our priorities for the first six and a half months of this administration.”

An election seen as illegitimate by the Afghan people could further jeopardize Obama’s plans to bolster Afghan governance and development, as the victor of the election would have a hard time making the difficult governing decisions Obama sees as necessary to reverse the war’s fortunes. Holbrooke last week suggested that a host of U.S. priorities for Afghanistan — “anti-corruption, a national reintegration amnesty program [for insurgents], improving the governance at the sub-central level,” all of which he called “vitally important in an overall counterinsurgency effort” — might be compromised if the next government cannot command the support of its people. Another problem, said Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, would be the “loss of U.S. domestic and Congressional support for the rough road ahead.”

The prevailing opinion by observers in Afghanistan and outside is uncertainty over the state of the race. Most polls show Karzai with double-digit leads over his 40 challengers, but experts caution that polling in a country beset with such widespread lack of security is problematic. Some of Karzai’s challengers, such as former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, are showing anecdotal signs of electoral strength, according to news reports. In a phone call from Kabul, Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who is monitoring the elections as part of a delegation from the nongovernmental organization Democracy International, said, “The people that are here, from journalists, aid workers, people here for years, at the embassy and ISAF [the NATO military command], you ask what’s going to happen and they don’t have a strong theory of the case. There’s a great deal of uncertainty.”

Holbrooke said on Wednesday that the international media would play a large role in setting a narrative of credibility and legitimacy for the election’s results. Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton released a statement on Monday urging the press to “refrain from speculation until results are announced” and for “candidates and their supporters to behave responsibly before and after the elections.” She promised neutrality by the United States, which has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The Taliban-led insurgency has threatened violent retaliation against any Afghan who votes in the election, and has launched a series of attacks on Kabul, the capital, in advance of the vote. According to Canadian Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, an ISAF spokesman, insurgents have averaged 32 attacks daily over the last 10 days, and a spike of 48 attacks during the last three. But Tremblay was confident that even if the insurgents were able to conduct “up to 65 attacks on different locations throughout Afghanistan” on Thursday they would only be able to reach one percent of Afghanistan’s approximately 6,500 polling centers.

The chief of ISAF’s election task force, Australian Brig. Gen. Damien Cantwell, said on a conference call Tuesday that Afghan security forces would take the lead role on securing the polling sites. “We’ll be ready to react” if those forces are overwhelmed by insurgents, Cantwell said.

U.S. officials would not comment on the record about the election for fear of being perceived as interfering, which would compound legitimacy concerns. Nor would officials interviewed for this story offer any predictions for what will happen on Thursday. But one official, who declined to be identified, said that if the election is “not perceived to be broadly legitimate,” it would merit a “whole new series of efforts to get beyond the perceived illegitimacy,” such as “a national unity government or pulling competitors into the government some other way.”

Shuja Nawaz, a South Asia scholar at the Atlantic Council who has advised Gen. David Petraeus about the region, said that “whatever the outcome of the election,” the next government would “seek some kind of ex post facto legitimacy by working out deals” among rival factions. Already Karzai has floated an offer to his rival Ashraf Ghani to join the government in the event Karzai wins reelection. (Ghani, who is being advised by Clinton confidante James Carville, has written a book with development expert Clare Lockhart, who has also advised Petraeus. She did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment for this piece.) “It’s very important for the coalition to have a working government in Kabul,” Nawaz said. “There will be tremendous pressure on the other major candidates to try work something out.”

While the U.S. official cautioned that a legitimacy crisis following the election would “forestall progress on all other areas,” some saw such a crisis as an unlikely scenario. “Karzai would be a fool to do something seen as anti-democratic,” a former intelligence officer with experience in Afghanistan who requested anonymity said. Nawaz pegged the odds for the election resulting in a government seen as illegitimate at 30 percent.

Yet at least one contender’s camp has said it views the reelection of Karzai to indicate fraud in and of itself. “We will not accept it. [Mr Karzai] cannot win unless he resorts to large-scale corruption, so we will not accept that,” Abdullah’s campaign manager, Abdul Sattar Murad, told the United Arab Emirates-based newspaper The National.

Cantwell did not directly address a question about the implications for NATO military actions if the elections were viewed as illegitimate, saying the elections were “an important step, but one of many” for Afghanistan. But he appeared to echo Holbrooke in observing that “all those sorts of reconstruction and stabilization activities that have been brought to bear are also underpinned by governance improvement.”

Additionally, perceived illegitimacy in the election could exacerbate sectarian tensions in Afghanistan. While Karzai is a Pashtun, much of his government is run by members of other ethnic groups, feeding into the Taliban’s message that the government disenfranchises Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. “If election is considered ‘stolen,’ which will only happen in the case of a Karzai win since it is his backers who have the means (government positions) to steal on a meaningful national level, there will be trouble with other ethnic groups, primarily Tajiks as Hazaras and Uzbeks will split votes,” Neumann said in an email. “If Abdullah wins in way where Pushtuns feel ‘we was cheated’ it will be a help to Taliban recruitment and make locals in the most difficult provinces, especially Helmand, Kandahar etc. harder to bring into support of the government. Probably not a similar problem for Asraf Ghani as he is a Pushtun.”

Still, Katulis said from Kabul, there were indications of optimism among Afghans. “In the face of violence and threats of intimidation people seem interested in this… there’s a parallel tension about security and uncertainty about the post-election period, but at the same time [there's] a hopeful political debate that’s happening in certain parts of the country and people seem pretty interested in the election.” Nawaz added that despite a recent history of war and authoritarianism, the number of competitive candidates in this year’s election represented “a great leap forward. It’s a huge victory for Afghans.”

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