Speculation about Afghanistan’s election

Afghanistan voted for its representatives in Parliament on Saturday. And what’s remarkable is, it’s not nearly as bad as everyone assumed. True, upwards of twenty people were abducted beforehand, and a few election workers got killed, and 63 polling stations were attacked with rockets, causing voters to run away from polling stations, and there was ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan voted for its representatives in Parliament on Saturday. And what’s remarkable is, it’s not nearly as bad as everyone assumed. True, upwards of twenty people were abducted beforehand, and a few election workers got killed, and 63 polling stations were attacked with rockets, causing voters to run away from polling stations, and there was at least one suicide bomber. And there was, of course, widespread fraud. But it could have been a lot worse.

In fact, violence this year was down nearly 37 percent over last year’s Presidential election. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, however, highlights in its first preliminary observation of the election the difficulty in assuming too much from mere trends. FEFA lauds the security forces for “preventing wide-scale disruptive violence,” but cautioned that there were still hundreds of security incidents that directly affected voting patterns. Worse still, a huge number of those attacks were caused by “powerbrokers,” the FEFA term for either strongmen or other candidates for office.

While the Afghan election is a process, not an event, there are still some lessons we can draw from the event. For one, Marjah, the tiny, isolated farming community in central Helmand where the U.S. launched a high profile campaign to defeat the Taliban earlier this year, was nearly empty. If nothing else, this should prompt skepticism of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)’s entire “government-in-a-box” idea, which says you can immediately replace destroyed institutions with functioning ones and declare victory. That clearly didn’t happen.

Afghanistan voted for its representatives in Parliament on Saturday. And what’s remarkable is, it’s not nearly as bad as everyone assumed. True, upwards of twenty people were abducted beforehand, and a few election workers got killed, and 63 polling stations were attacked with rockets, causing voters to run away from polling stations, and there was at least one suicide bomber. And there was, of course, widespread fraud. But it could have been a lot worse.

In fact, violence this year was down nearly 37 percent over last year’s Presidential election. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, however, highlights in its first preliminary observation of the election the difficulty in assuming too much from mere trends. FEFA lauds the security forces for “preventing wide-scale disruptive violence,” but cautioned that there were still hundreds of security incidents that directly affected voting patterns. Worse still, a huge number of those attacks were caused by “powerbrokers,” the FEFA term for either strongmen or other candidates for office.

While the Afghan election is a process, not an event, there are still some lessons we can draw from the event. For one, Marjah, the tiny, isolated farming community in central Helmand where the U.S. launched a high profile campaign to defeat the Taliban earlier this year, was nearly empty. If nothing else, this should prompt skepticism of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)’s entire “government-in-a-box” idea, which says you can immediately replace destroyed institutions with functioning ones and declare victory. That clearly didn’t happen.

But there might be a bright side to the election, as well, though it requires a fair amount of speculation. ISAF recently attacked a convoy of cars in Takhar, a small province in northeast Afghanistan. While ISAF claims they killed a senior member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, one of the occupants of those cars was a candidate running for parliament, raising the troubling question of collaboration between elected members of parliament and the insurgency. Candidates could either be working with insurgent leaders for some reason, or insurgent groups could be fielding their own candidates for office. It would explain the lowered levels of insecurity on Saturday: there is no reason to engage in violence if your own people are running.

There’s no evidence that actually happened, and we might never know if it did. But we should be looking at ways to incorporate the insurgency into Afghanistan’s political process anyway. Far better to have bastards running for office than launching rockets at the voting booths.

Joshua Foust is a contributor to PBS Need to Know and a contributing editor at Current Intelligence. He blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at http://registan.net.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.