What to think about the Afghan elections

The polls have closed. A survey of opinion on what the results will mean, from the Nation to the Weekly Standard

Published August 20, 2009 4:40PM (EDT)

When another country holds an election, there’s a natural urge for Americans to try to figure out which side to root for. Obviously, though, picking a president isn’t football -- forming a preference for a foreign political party is a tall order. It’s plenty difficult even to understand what’s happening overseas, no matter what the country: in Japan, only one party ever wins. Italian governments can’t seem to make it past the two-year mark. In Turkey, the threat of a military coup functions something like our Supreme Court. France has got all that weird internal party warfare. But when it comes to Afghanistan, there’s a rather more literal threat of internal warfare in play. The Taliban has done its best to disrupt the voting and discredit the election, by the government's count conducting 73 attacks in 15 of 34 provinces on Thursday. About 300,000 Afghan and NATO soldiers have been on patrol to safeguard the process. The government says turn-out is high, other reports say it is low, but polls have now closed after a one-hour extension. No result is expected for weeks.

Afghanistan’s network of interlocking ethnic and political rivals is a daunting enough target for examination. But even for an observer with some grasp on what might happen, it’s still difficult to know what the meaning of today’s election will be. Should you be happy if Hamid Karzai is reelected? What does this result imply for the American troop presence? For women’s rights?

Salon has put together a survey of opinions across the political spectrum. For lack of a better system, they’re ordered from the “things look grim” crowd to “everything’s coming up roses.” There is, alas, precious little in the latter category.


J. Alexander Their, Foreign Policy: "Corruption is also endemic in the country. Afghanistan was ranked among the top five most-corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International this year. Ties to the $4 billion opium trade are found at every level of government. Even when the justice system seems to function, the powerful go free. In April, President Hamid Karzai pardoned five convicted drug traffickers -- one the nephew of his campaign manager. And most ordinary Afghans don't have access to a reliable court to resolve their disputes.

The most dangerous direction for Afghanistan, and the United States, is increased military engagement that props up an increasingly illegitimate government. Instead, the United States must act aggressively with its Afghan partners in the lead to break the cycle of impunity and corruption that's dragging us all down and providing a hospitable environment for the insurgency."

John Noonan, The Weekly Standard: "My colleague Bill Roggio has made similar points here on the blog -- you'll never be able to fully reconstruct Afghanistan as long as there's a big chunk of the indigenous population eager to tear the place back down. History's failed counterinsurgency fights have been marked by efficient armies obsessed with kill ratios instead of the human terrain. The point West is making, and I think it's a sound one, is that we've moved so far in the opposite direction, we may be forgetting that the enemy still needs to be crushed -- however delicately."

Manizha Naderi, The Nation: "We have tried to ensure the participation of women in the elections. We have helped many women (our clients who are living at home rather than in our shelters) get registered to vote. I have also encouraged our staff to vote on election day.

We cannot take the women from the shelter to vote on election day. It will simply be too dangerous. Also I don't want people in the neighborhood to find out that a lot of women are living in one house."

Ann Friedman, Washington Post: "Perhaps of more concern for women and girls is that Karzai is positioning himself as someone who can bring the Taliban and other fundamentalist factions back into the fold. Scant regard is being paid to what this would mean for Afghan women, who have worked courageously for the precious few freedoms they have won in recent years.

When I ask diplomats here what deals with the Taliban will mean for women, I get platitudes and assurances that officials are 'only talking to those who sign up to the Afghan constitution.' But if the president does not feel bound by the constitution's promise to make men and women equal before the law, should anyone believe it would constrain a former insurgent? As one female activist told me: 'Deals with the Taliban will mean everything we have achieved in the last eight years could be lost. It will have been only a dream.'"


Spencer Ackerman, Washington Independent: "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.'"

Frederick W. Kagan, National Review Online: "It is important to recognize such Taliban activity for what it is: carefully calibrated use of force to induce terror among the population while minimizing civilian casualties. In the end, it appears that many Afghans, including many Pashtuns, have voted despite the threats. But that in itself is not necessarily a defeat for the Taliban. Disrupting the vote was a part of their strategy. Discrediting the result will be another. It is not yet clear to what extent the violence and rumor of violence will have contributed to delegitimizing the result."

Matthew Yglesias, The American Prospect: "Today, Afghans head to the polls fearing attack from Taliban forces who've labeled the process a 'program of the crusaders.' Most likely, Taliban efforts to derail the voting will fail, and incumbent President Hamid Karzai will stay in office. A smooth election, if it happens, should provide a morale boost for an Obama administration that's lately been struggling with grim assessments of Afghanistan's political situation. But even given a best-case scenario, no election result should distract from the United States' desperate need to frame realistic objectives in Afghanistan."

Renard Sexton, FiveThirtyEight.com: "The final results will likely raise more questions than the answer for numbers-oriented people, in large part because the tallies that come from the electoral commission in Afghanistan (IEC) do not have a great track record. Indeed, it is possible that these polls, flawed as they might be, could better approximate the Afghan public sentiment than the results will. International observers quoted by the BBC after the 2005 parliamentary elections as saying that the elections had 'very significant fraud,' something that remains a major concern. Along with basic security, the integrity of the voting system for this year has again been widely challenged.

Even so, given the requirement of a run-off in the case that there is majority share winner, we could see a two-man second round following tomorrow's voting. A run-off, which could be forced if Karzai loses just 6 points from his 2004 share, would indicate a small but serious rupture in his coalition. Whether this would be a positive development (Competitiveness! Democracy!) or a negative one (Weak, fragmented government; Corruption; Taliban influence), is up for interpretation."


Shuja Nawaz, Foreign Policy: "No matter what the pundits and the election commission say after tomorrow's elections in Afghanistan, one thing seems clear: we know who has won. It is the people of Afghanistan. Rather than hurl rockets or grenades at each other, they have debated and traded arguments. Rather than picking up arms, they clicked on to their computers and glued themselves to their TV screens to watch what the candidates were saying.

And their disparate and distinct voices are being heard. The fact that we have an election taking place, despite all the constitutional and other difficulties and the threats from the Taliban, is victory enough for the Afghan people. And, if the election goes to a second round, the victory will be even greater."


For future developments, keep an eye on the excellent Alive in Afghanistan blog.

By Salon Staff

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