Photo Credit: The New York Times/ Christoph Bangert

By announcing April 5, 2014, as the official date to hold the much-anticipated Afghan presidential elections, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) set in motion the critical process of political transfer of power from Hamid Karzai to the next elected president. However, this announcement comes at a time when the country is rife with Taliban–infested violence, is in doubt about the future of reconciliation overtures, is anxious about the end-of-NATO-mission in 2014 and is uncertain about several key transitions - all happening within a short time-frame.

Furthermore, there are contentious outstanding technicalities. These include:  lingering questions about pending electoral laws under review by the government, controversy about foreign membership in the election complaints commission (ECC), how to finalize a practical and inclusive voter id/registration mechanism, and guaranteeing non-interference in the electoral process by relevant authorities and strongmen.

Nonetheless, the announcement was welcomed by the president and most Afghan political groupings as an encouraging sign of political will, even though some remain skeptical about an early spring date that is too close to the snow-melting season, which may hamper campaigning and electoral preparations in elevated regions of the country. (See my colleague Scott Smith’s article on how this issue has affected controversies over the electoral date in previous elections).

The announcement also called for provincial council elections to be held at the same time as the main ballot for what was termed as “cost-cutting purposes”. A timetable leading to elections and beyond was also announced in Kabul, Wednesday, by Fazl Ahmad Mahnawi, head of the IEC that includes the following target dates:

  1. April 21, 2013: start of voter registration period
  2. Sept. 16 – Oct. 6, 2013: Candidate nomination/sign-up period
  3. Nov. 17, 2013 – April 2, 2014: Electoral campaign period
  4. April 5, 2014: Election day
  5. April 6 – April 20, 2014: vote tally/counting period
  6. April 7 – May 7, 2014: election complaints evaluation period
  7. May 17, 2014: Final announcement of presidential election results
  8. May 28, 2014: potential run-off vote
  9. June 7, 2014: Final announcement of provincial council election results

Mahnawi expressed optimism about resolving technicalities to assure a free, fair and transparent process, but warned that the “debate is about the challenges posed by security.” Although officials said Afghan forces would take all necessary measures to ensure security during elections, there is little hope that most voter centers in insecure areas could be safeguarded, or that the Taliban would either agree to cessation of hostilities or be politically reconciled by election time.

That whole quandary is tied to larger geo-political and regional dynamics. Most Afghans believe that Pakistan’s decision-making apparatus is indirectly part of the equation. Political elites consider their neighbor’s hazy outlook and continued hedging as a source of concern as they see the Taliban, to a large extent, act as a strategic arm that provides Islamabad with end-game leverage.

Afghans are looking forward to some degree of reckoning on the part of Islamabad’s policy gurus that would promote new ideas based on a mutually-beneficial paradigm best suited to 21st century trends emerging as part of regional cooperation, most importantly among the youth and internet-savvy generation, who are more prone to achieving harmony, prosperity and growth than embracing radical politics.

Despite Taliban opposition to the constitutional order, Mahnawi said the IEC would not discriminate, and is prepared to “pave the way for the armed opposition, be it Taliban or Hezb-e Islami to participate in elections, either as voters or candidates.”

Eventually, an ostracized Taliban would either have to choose between continued fighting that will be hotly contested by a mobilized Afghan population and energized security forces, or enter into earnest talks to end the war for the sake of reconciliation. Most Afghans believe that the best scenario would be for a political settlement by election time that would allow most mainstream Taliban fighters to lay down their arms and join the political process. The benefits of such an outcome would undoubtedly have far reaching consequences across the region.

In case security becomes an impediment to holding inclusive and fair elections in large swaths of the country, a constitutional crisis may lead to annulment, postponement or the declaration of a state-of-emergency, all options that will heighten tensions domestically and eventually lead to regional complications.

On the other hand, if elections were to be held with relative success, viewed as credible by most Afghans and international stakeholders, and result in a legitimate transfer of power to a new elected leader, not only will the process of transition be made easier for Western nations, and the overall post-2001 mission be perceived as a success, but President Karzai would also be toasted as a statesman leaving behind a valuable historic legacy. (See USIP President Jim Marshall’s New York Times op-ed, "How Karzai Could Make Himself a Hero.")

Another upside to holding successful elections in Afghanistan is the fact that the international community would deliver on its multi-year pledges recently made in Bonn II, Chicago and Tokyo to help fund the Afghan security forces and help the country move toward sustainable development and better governance over the next decade. A fraudulent election runs the risk of seriously diminishing donor commitments estimated at more than $16 billion over the next few years, or wiping it out altogether.

Part of the responsibility for a desirable outcome rests on President Karzai, who is in a unique position during this short window of opportunity to steer the country and his own legacy toward an historic path, while another part rests on the political elites to offer Afghans a clear alternative, and a way out of eventual turmoil by coalescing around a solid and unified bloc that can re-energize the Afghan electorate and focus on a reform agenda. Coalition-building outreach and efforts are already underway in the country’s main political bazaars, and will speed up now that a date has been set. Too early to tell though what shape and compositions these blocs might take.

Meanwhile, as political actors wrangle over critical voter registration, electoral law and ECC composition over the next few weeks, a unique opportunity has presented itself to attain a win-win outcome if the Afghan political transition is handled with strategic vision, political will and astuteness within the short time-span ahead of Afghans and international stakeholders, who have invested heavily in this vital post 9-11 mission, and whose aim should be to help secure a successful and sustainable transition and prospects for a better future.

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