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Afghanistan Votes: Who Cares?

Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009

There is tremendous buzz about Afghanistan's elections. Open up any op-ed page, and you can find countless articles about votes and democracy and Karzai not instantly winning, and whatever else. But what I don't get is why anyone cares.Democratic elections usually rest on a few basic principles: a free and fair vote, an uncoerced selection of candidates, and an agreement by all parties to abide by the results. Afghanistan doesn't quite qualify for any of these.

*Take the idea of a free and fair vote. Pajhwok, an internationally-funded independent Afghan news service, has an entire news page set aside for incidents of voter intimidation -- and I don't mean by the Taliban (more on them later). It runs the gamut from the government arresting supporters of Abdullah Abdullah, to police killing Nuristanis for asking for enough ballot boxes to cast their votes.

*The government is building up "tribal security" forces modeled on the arbakai, a traditional tribal militia. Only, these forces are going to be different from all the other forces that have come before, will be given better weapons, and will not be subject to the disarmament and de-mobilization programs that have stood down other informal militias. In other words, they are flooding the country with guns to try to create security for the election.

*Shortly before the registration deadline passed, Gul Agha Sherzai -- the former-warlord governor of Nangarhar Province who had taken to American newspapers to make the case for his impending presidency -- abruptly withdrew his own nomination amid rumors of a deal cut with Hamid Karzai.

*Speaking of deals, what's "free and fair" about Karzai de-exiling a man like Abdul Rashid Dostum -- the Uzbek warlord who faces allegations of America-sponsored mass killings in 2001 -- to deliver the Uzbek vote?

We could go on. The very fact that several parties expect the Uzbeks to essentially vote as a bloc makes me question the entire validity of the vote: this is not like a party member voting a party line, these are subjects doing their ruler's bidding. In interviews all around the country, you see a similar dynamic -- "we'll vote for whomever our elder tells us to." What's worse, many people have been explicit that they plan on voting for whomever they think will win -- which means, they are voting for Hamid Karzai.

Lastly, there is the Taliban question. Until Abdullah made a surprisingly strong showing, the Taliban were almost absent from the election -- in particular they didn't interfere with voter registration over the last year. Even though they're doing what insurgencies do, and attacking some polling stations here and there, it is obvious, especially from the soldiers on the ground, that there is no way they could possibly secure even a majority of the polling stations around the country. Despite that, there won't be a major Taliban disruption because they know better than we do that even a runoff election will not change a thing in the country.

If Hamid Karzai wins, it's the failing status quo, and a powerful narrative that democracy doesn't work. If Abdullah Abdullah somehow wins, then he'll have to deal with the powerful entrenched interests in Kabul that even Karzai couldn't meaningfully change -- which would mean a continuation of the status quo and a powerful narrative that democracy doesn't work. If somehow the planets align and Ashraf Ghani wins, then Kabul will get to experience yet another America-friendly egotistical technocrat -- precisely what Karzai was in 2002 -- and very little would likely change. You know the rest.While this matters on a theoretical level -- Afghanistan has never before tried to change a government through election -- the chances of it meaning anything on a strategic, pragmatic, or personal level are so remote it's difficult to understand what all the hubbub is about. Then again, this is also an argument I would be thrilled to lose, because if Afghanistan is consistent about anything, it is surprising its Western observers.