Lost in transition: A political strategy for Afghanistan
The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) signed by President Obama and President Karzai in the dead of night in Kabul on May 2nd, and the recently concluded Chicago Summit, have sent an important message that the international community is not abandoning Afghanistan, and that Afghanistan’s stability and security remain a key objective of the United States ...
The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) signed by President Obama and President Karzai in the dead of night in Kabul on May 2nd, and the recently concluded Chicago Summit, have sent an important message that the international community is not abandoning Afghanistan, and that Afghanistan’s stability and security remain a key objective of the United States and its NATO allies. The Chicago summit has ratified crucial details of the security strategy to meet these objectives. But the last decade in Afghanistan has shown that security strategies in the absence of political strategies do not translate into peace and stability. The international community’s political strategy has always been muddled or murky at best, or missing altogether. But politics is happening in Afghanistan, providing new opportunities even as international troops withdraw. After Chicago, there is an urgent need to ensure that a strategy for the upcoming political transition in Afghanistan, and in particular the 2014 presidential election, receives similar policy attention as has been devoted to the security transition and the SPA.
We’ve just returned from a few weeks in Afghanistan, where we perceived both a new and energized spirit of politicking for the 2014 presidential elections, as well as baldly stated fears of a return to civil war. For many we interviewed, the two are inextricably linked – a massively flawed election in 2014, or a failure to hold an election at all, could easily result in a destabilizing situation where there is no legitimate civilian control, and security forces could break down and begin competing for power along ethnic and factional lines. If so, the tens of billions of dollars devoted to building the Afghan security forces, under the assumption that they would come under civilian control, could amount instead to an investment in a more ruthless and costly civil conflict that further destabilizes Afghanistan and its neighbors. Given this huge risk, not only for Afghans but also for core U.S. national security interests in the region, it is imperative to rectify the major imbalance between the time and effort devoted to planning the security transition vs. the political transition – especially given that the fate of both are so deeply intertwined.
In Kabul, the political transition discussions we had often boiled down to one question: what will Karzai do? He has repeatedly stated publicly that he will not be president after 2014. But there are few examples in Afghan history of orderly and peaceful transitions of power, and many Afghans refuse to take President Karzai at his word. If it is true, as Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said, that "information is the currency of democracy", then rumor is the currency of Afghan democracy (some might say, more simply, that currency is the currency of Afghan democracy). Karzai’s statements have been dismissed by many Afghans with a raft of conspiracy theories on how he will extend his power. These range from the Constitutional (declaring a state of emergency-though this could only last two months before it would need to be ratified by the parliament), to the coercive (convening a rigged loya jirga to change the constitution), to the too-clever-by-half (resigning with his two vice-presidents before his term is up and running a few months later on the ground that he had not completed two terms).
President Karzai’s recent proposal to hold elections in 2013, ostensibly to take advantage of the larger number of international troops, only fueled the suspicions of those who refuse to believe that he will respect the Afghan Constitution. At the same time, many of those we spoke to say that Karzai recognizes that any attempt to subvert the Constitution will lead to demonstrations in Kabul. One political figure said that the regime can only fall as a result of unrest in Kabul, not insurgency in the provinces. The one thing that would bring rioting to Kabul’s streets, he argued, would be an attempt to hold onto power unconstitutionally, and that Karzai is aware of this and would not risk it.
If President Karzai does give up power constitutionally, there are several plausible scenarios. The first would be for the political elite, including Karzai and major opposition figures, to settle on a single candidate. An elite consensus along these lines would turn the election into a sort of referendum, and minimize the probability that electoral fraud would be as destabilizing as it was in 2009. The second scenario is that Karzai backs a candidate who many opposition figures find unacceptable, but a broad-based opposition coalition is able to agree on a single rival candidate. In the event of a hotly contested race that this scenario could result in, the quality of the election would play a crucial role in ensuring a legitimate transfer of power. A third scenario would be for Karzai to back a candidate while the opposition is unable to unite. This could allow Karzai to perpetuate his hold on power through the election of a political proxy-many in Kabul called this the "Putin-Medvedev scenario".
What happens next depends as much on the opposition as on President Karzai. At crucial moments, opposition figures have lost their nerve, preferring to be co-opted by the palace rather than face the real risks of confronting the existing power structure. Even now, the opposition is divided between those who claim that Karzai has become so powerful that he-or any candidate he backs-is invincible, and those who claim that he is intrinsically weak but that the international community’s deference has made him artificially strong. The opposition appears to be waiting for signals-from Karzai that he will allow a fair election (for example, by setting an election date soon and by ensuring the appointment of independent election commissioners), and from the international community that they will insist on it. The danger of on-going ambiguity about the commitment to support and hold credible elections is that Afghan political figures will not take the required risks to participate constructively in the consensus-building process. It would not be surprising if Karzai tested the nerve of his opposition, in the hopes that it collapses under the test. It has worked in the past.
Nonetheless, there are encouraging signs of political activity aimed at the presidential election. Candidates and parties are organizing, opposition parties are making specific demands for electoral reforms, and a process to reform the election legislation has begun.
The international community, however, has greeted this activity with extreme caution. The common talking point of senior U.S. government officials is that elections in Afghanistan are a sovereign matter. Opposition figures listen to this in dismay, arguing that the sovereignty the internationals are protecting is not Afghanistan’s, but Karzai’s and the corrupt and predatory political mafias with strong links to the palace. A true respect for Afghan sovereignty, they argue, would require the promotion of a level political playing field. They have a point: it is curious at least that the presence of 130,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, and the provision of assistance worth about the equivalent of the country’s GDP, is somehow not an infringement on sovereignty, while pressure to hold fair elections in accordance with the Afghan Constitution is perceived to be too intrusive and risky. The greater risk is that such misplaced sensitivities that are often interpreted by Afghans as lukewarm international support for democratic elections, and/or undue skepticism that credible elections can be held, will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are, however, good reasons for international caution. Government and opposition figures alike noted that the international community’s legitimacy on elections was undermined in 2009 by the perception that the late U.S. State Department Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, backed individual candidates against Karzai rather than supporting the process. President Karzai has used this to frighten the international community away from its legitimate concerns about the process, whereas the key lesson from 2009 should be to forcefully support the process but not individual candidates. Furthermore, a fundamental difference between the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections, which should reduce some of the sensitivities regarding international support for the process, is that Karzai has publically stated on numerous occasions that in accordance with the Constitution he will not be contesting the next election.
The U.S. government was particularly cautious about antagonizing Karzai, including by raising election-related issues, during the long and drawn-out process of negotiating the SPA. Many Afghans expressed concern that this caution will continue during the negotiation of the Status of Forces Agreement, which must be completed in the next 12 months, giving Karzai at least another year of tranquility on electoral matters. The U.N., which took positions in both the 2009 and 2010 elections that angered Karzai, is similarly reticent, and in public at least echoes the "sovereign process" talking point.
Given this reticence to date, the widely reported meeting President Obama had with President Karzai on the sidelines of the Chicago Summit, during which issues of electoral reform and planning for the 2014 elections were raised and discussed, are a very encouraging sign that the U.S. will now be prioritizing the political transition and supporting and advocating more publically for credible elections in 2014. While international support for elections must be done sensitively and respectfully, too quiet and soft of an approach would be a big mistake. The majority of Afghans who respect the Constitution and want a democratic future for their country need to be assured that the international community led by the U.S. is committed to doing everything possible to ensure relatively free and fair elections. The stakes of the 2014 election are very high, and the future stability of Afghanistan – ultimately the core strategic interest of the U.S. – is likely to depend on the perception of the election’s legitimacy. While the challenges to holding credible elections in 2014 are undoubtedly great, and the risks considerable, the much greater risk is to continue to pay scant attention to the political transition, and to pin hopes on a stable and secure Afghanistan solely on the abilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. One need not look far in the region to see the negative consequences for peace and stability, not to mention democracy, of relatively strong security institutions and very weak civilian institutions.
For better or for worse, the international community has inherited a partial responsibility for ensuring that the next elections play the role of consensus-building and state legitimation that would be the most likely way to save the country from civil war. The international community can fulfill this responsibility by doing the following:
- Make it clear that future assistance will depend on a credible electoral process in 2014. The Tokyo conference in July provides an opportunity to underline this message. It should anyway be clear to the Afghan government that the global financial situation is such that many countries are simply looking for excuses to reduce their aid to Afghanistan. Deeply flawed elections or no elections would inevitably lead to much sharper reductions in aid.
- Provide reassurances that the necessary international logistic and security assets required to hold elections will be in place in 2014.
- Avoid the tempting diplomatic game of identifying potential candidates, and instead support electoral processes to help create a level playing field and allow Afghans to form their own coalitions and freely support their favored candidates.
- Support civil society, media, women’s and youth groups, to continue to discuss how to improve Afghan elections. Civic and voter education in the past has been insufficient. There is time to correct this. The more knowledgeable the electorate, the harder it is to rig elections, and the greater the popular expectation for elections, the more costly would be any decision to cancel them.
- Avoid the temptation to fall for quick-fixes-like accelerated elections in 2013. Patience and discretion are required, but there should be no lack of conviction in the need for a level playing field.
Given the recent history of Afghan elections, it may seem implausible to bet on Afghan democracy as a means of solving Afghanistan’s deep-rooted problems, but almost everyone we spoke to were clear that it was the only bet to make. Democratic processes might not succeed, but everything else will surely fail without them.
Scott Smith is the Deputy Director for Afghan Programs, and Andrew Wilder the Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs, at the United States Institute of Peace. The views reflected here are their own.
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