How and Why the U.S. and NATO Should Mitigate Election Violence in Afghanistan
To little international fanfare, Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) recently opened the three-week nomination period for next year’s presidential elections. This contest represents a watershed moment for domestic stakeholders and a litmus test for whether U.S. and NATO efforts there will reap benefits. Already, the United States and NATO have devoted strategically targeted resources to enhance the election’s credibility. At the same time, such efforts at democracy promotion are insufficient to prevent, manage, and mitigate violence surrounding the vote.
The potential for electoral violence remains high. Less than seven months before Afghans go to the ballot box, nearly 50 percent of polling stations are under security risk. Just this month, the Taliban killed an election worker in Kunduz province and two days later assassinated the IEC’s provincial head there. Such violence will only escalate and spread as the election approaches. As the German Marshall Fund’s recently released Transatlantic Trends survey shows, the West’s appetite for sustained and robust investment in Afghanistan is waning, with citizens divided on whether to maintain troops there to train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). And, according to the same survey, although most U.S. and European citizens prefer that democracy take root globally, their governments’ track record in promoting Western forms of governance in general — and in Afghanistan particularly — is mixed. That said, whether the transatlantic community realizes the rewards from its investment of tremendous blood and treasure — a stable country — is firmly linked to a peaceful transition of power to Karzai’s presidential successor; and this begins with a relatively credible election in which Afghans can campaign and cast ballots. Accordingly, the United States and NATO should couple their ongoing programmatic and political efforts with three further steps to curb violence surrounding the 2014 Afghan presidential elections.
These measures require no substantial additional investment and would help safeguard the upcoming electoral process and U.S./NATO interests associated therewith. First, the transatlantic allies must push Pakistan to do its part. Violence requires perpetrators to carry it out, and Afghanistan’s porous southern and eastern borders allow them easy access and sanctuary. To shrink the pool of potential insurgents, the United States and NATO should press and work with Pakistan to bolster its troop presence on the border starting at least four months prior to the election — as they did for the 2004 and 2005 contests. Second, they should support electoral security planning. Where the International Security Assistance Force once provided support for election security, the responsibility will now fall mainly to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In anticipation of the poll, the ANSF and other Afghan institutions have discussed a planning and coordination template for providing security for the election. And the IEC recently held a meeting to take stock of potential threats. Even so, it remains to be seen whether such coordination mechanisms have been finalized or initiated. As their top priority, the United States and NATO should provide necessary support to the IEC to ensure electoral security planning mechanisms are put in place immediately. This should include measures to guarantee protection for female candidates, who historically have received less government-sponsored protection than their male counterparts. And the United States and NATO should press the Afghan Ministry of Interior and ANSF to ensure that they properly coordinate and deploy assets to ensure their investment actually helps safeguard the election. Third, the United States and NATO should pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai to stay out and step down. Encouragingly, Karzai recently signed into law key electoral reforms and has promised to hold the election and to step down thereafter. These positive signs notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether he will prioritize the national interest and hold the election or give preference to his own patron-client priorities and delay the poll, so as to maximize time to reap the spoils of government. He may even press the electoral commission to ensure his chosen successor wins. Accordingly, the transatlantic partners should increase pressure on Karzai to stick to the prescribed electoral timeframe, ensure security forces impartially protect candidates, and peacefully hand power to his successor. In the context of ongoing negotiations over a long-term security agreement, making such demands will be difficult at best.
Nevertheless, Karzai represents a vital piece to this political transition puzzle. As others have rightfully noted, Western efforts to promote democracy have a checkered past and its approach needs to be re-calibrated, if not entirely supplanted, with a new paradigm. A core pillar of any such approach, however, should be to aid states in transition thwart violent challenges to democratic processes, including elections, they are trying to establish. Helping Afghanistan to do so is in keeping with U.S. and NATO interests and can produce key lessons for transatlantic engagement in other fragile states in transition.
Patrick W. Quirk is a Fellow at The Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC, and is the co-author of Best Practices in Electoral Security: a Guide for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Programming (USAID). He performed an Electoral Security Assessment in Afghanistan in March 2012.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.